Yaser Hamed has always had big dreams. It began when he played in the Athletic Club de Bilbao academy alongside the likes of Spain No. 1 Unai Simon, watching the senior side flourish under the tutelage of the iconic Marcelo Bielsa.
His early hopes of a long career at the San Mames were dashed when he was released at the age of 15, but Hamed persisted with professional football and in recent years has flourished in the Middle East — playing in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar.
The Spanish-born center-back’s most valued connection with the region, however, comes courtesy of his Palestinian father. In 2019, Hamed received his first international call-up for Palestine and has since represented the national team more than 20 times. He looks certain to be part of Al-Fida’i’s squad for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, and this is the source of his latest dream.
“Year by year we are improving and I think we will have a very good Asian Cup,” Hamed told Arab News. “We want to say something in this kind of big competition and we absolutely must pass through the group stage.
“I think quarterfinal, semifinal will be amazing but for me, what I want is to win the Asian Cup,” the 25-year-old said.
“What is the point to just say ‘I will play and see what happens?’ No. My target if I play in a competition is to win it. If not, I will not go. This is my mentality always. I like to win, I don’t like to lose.”
Hamed’s winning mentality was ingrained in one of the world’s most admired academies. Along with goalkeeper Simon, he played with current Athletic striker Asier Villalibre, Celta Vigo center-back Unai Nunez and Inigo Cordoba, who now plays in the Eredivisie with Fortuna Sittard.
“The formation of players is amazing there because they are very, very professional from an early age,” Hamed explained. “The youth teams in all categories have a high level of professionalism — it is about quality coaching, quality nutrition. That’s why they bring so many good players through to the first team and into other clubs.”
While Hamed played with many talented youngsters, he said Simon stood above the rest in terms of his desire.
“From a very young age Unai was incredibly hungry,” said Hamad, who was at Athletic from 2007 to 2012. “In each training session he gave 100 percent and if he conceded even one goal, he was angry with himself. Each day he tried to do his best and improve; I remember his father, who is also a very good person, would bring a camera and film him so that they could talk about how he could improve.
“Unai is a very humble person, who made all the steps perfectly to be the best goalkeeper in Spain. He had that focus and that goal; this is why he is now such a top player.”
The golden era of celebrated Chilean coach Bielsa coincided with Hamed’s time at Athletic. The teenage center-back was a ball boy at San Mames, often stationed next to Bielsa, and saw firsthand how he transformed the club — taking them to the 2012 Europa League final in 2012 via an impressive evisceration of Manchester United.
“Bielsa was crazy but it is because he is the special one. He is different. He knows so much about football and he really took Athletic to the next level so that everyone in Europe knew the club. He is an amazing coach.”
Hamed fell short of making the Athletic first team and stayed in the lower leagues of Spain until a surprise call-up to the Palestine national team helped raise his profile. He has since played for Egyptian side Al-Masry and last season was with Qatari heavyweights Al-Rayyan, where his teammates included Colombia star James Rodriguez and ex-Sevilla and Roma midfielder Steven Nzonzi.
“Of course it is nice to play with guys like this,” Hamed said. “On the first day it’s a little bit weird, but they are normal people who treat you not just like a teammate, but also like you are a friend.
“On the pitch, they try to teach you some things and give you advice to help you improve and it is always good to listen to them but then they will also invite you to dinner or for coffee. This was a great experience for me at Al-Rayyan.”
Currently between clubs, Hamed is still training in Qatar, where his brother Jamal plays for newly-promoted Qatar Stars League side Muaither.
“I’d love to play against my brother in the QSL but let’s see what happens. Right now I’m a free player and I’m listening to offers in all different countries so I hope soon to have a new club. I will stay here in Qatar until I decide my future.
“Some players worry about missing pre-season but honestly, I just love to train — even in my holidays I will train every day. I eat well, train all the time and yes, it is nice to be around teammates, but I can still be focused and professional even when I am alone.”
The Palestine national team have reaped the benefits of Hamed’s focus in recent years and he has become an important player for his country. And though he has never actually lived in Palestine, the center-back feels deeply connected to the people he is playing for.
“It means everything when the national anthem is playing and I feel very proud. As players we feel it is our responsibility to give a voice to Palestine on the field. It feels different I think to other countries and whether it is a friendly or not, we want to give everything.
“It is something deep inside, you are hungry to play well — to show the world that Palestine is here. It is why, when Palestine calls it doesn’t matter where our players are in the world — whether it’s a four-hour flight or a 35-hour flight — they will come to defend the national team. This is special.”