Hussein Yasser: Pep said he’d rather retire than sign for long-ball Man City
When we published a profile of Hussein Yasser, the Qatari midfielder who played for Manchester United and City, we didn’t expect him to read it, let alone get in touch. He did both.
Yasser was in Belfast getting his UEFA coaching license, alongside other former Premier League players like Luis Garcia and Chris Samba, when one of his former teachers from Belfast read our article about his former student and sent it to the man himself.
The former United and City midfielder got in touch to clarify a few things, about life as a United reserve, training with Pep at City and leaving the Qatari national team. He even sent some photos to tell the story.
Brazilian for Fergie
In 2002, Qatar didn’t have a record of exporting footballers to Europe.
In fact, even as the Gulf country prepares to host a World Cup, it still doesn’t.
Which makes Hussein Yasser’s transfer from Al Rayyan to Manchester United, almost 20 years ago now, seem quite improbable.
So improbable, in fact, that Yasser’s mentor tried to disguise the player’s origin.
“Rene Meulensteen, the one who brought me to Man United in the beginning, was my coach in the national team of Qatar,” Yasser tells me over the phone.
“He told Alex Ferguson and (former United assistant and youth director) Jimmy Ryan about me.
“He showed them my videos, some of the games I’d played with the national team… But he said I was a Brazilian player in the beginning!”
Fortunately, Meulensteen wasn’t seriously trying to dupe his employers.
“Rene was a guy who liked to have fun, and it was maybe more interesting to say ‘I have a technical player’ than if he would say ‘Oh, I have a player from Qatar…’
“It was kind of funny.”
A trial was arranged, and United immediately signed up their new Brazilian-style midfielder.
“I wanted to play in Europe, and I did my best [at the trial]. That’s why they saw that I had the talent to stay; that’s why they signed me.”
It wasn’t the same for everyone though.
While Yasser saw his nationality as an obstacle to success, he saw the opposite situation in some of his team-mates.
“[United] brought that Chinese player, Dong [Fangzhuo], but you know it was more commercial with him — for United to have a player from China.
“I don’t think there was potential there.”
Yasser soon completed a loan to Antwerp, United’s talent farm in Belgium.
But to his dismay, there was a lack of care from his parent club.
“United didn’t really give us the attention,” he says. “They weren’t there to really follow us or the club or anything. Maybe they were just getting some reports.
“It wasn’t beneficial, because Antwerp — or any club you deal with — they think ‘If [the loanees] do well here then [the parent club] will take them or put them somewhere else, and then actually we don’t have anything to do with them; they’re not our players.’”
Although Yasser enjoyed a “very impressive” first season in Belgium, things deteriorated in the second.
“[Meulensteen] was trying to do more for us, and we were trying to be close to [United]… but we had nothing to do with them anymore.”
Worse still, Antwerp were struggling against relegation.
“We didn’t feel comfortable working with the club under those conditions,” Yasser says. “[Antwerp] have good fans, fanatics, everybody supports the club, but facility-wise, organisation-wise, they had problems.”
So when Antwerp were eventually relegated, Yasser offered his employers a suggestion.
“I asked United if I could make a [loan] to a better club. I thought, ‘I’ve been two years in Belgium, I think I’m too far from United, from the league.’
“I said: ‘Let me have a look for somewhere else because I think it’s not the right place for me, playing for a club who is playing relegation football, struggling to stay in the league.’”
When that request was denied, Yasser decided he had to leave.
2004 was still a great year for him, though. In December, he helped Qatar win their second Arabian Gulf Cup — on home soil.
“That was my career start really, winning the Gulf Cup in Doha.”
Man City arrival
In 2005, several major names were playing their football in Qatar: Frank and Ronald de Boer, Gabriel Batistuta, even former Man City hero Ali Benarbia.
But for Yasser, who had won major honours in Qatar while still a teenager, Europe still held greater appeal.
So in the summer of 2005, he signed for Manchester’s other famous club.
“Benarbia was the reason I went from Cyprus to Al Sadd, and then to Man City,” Yasser recalls.
“But I didn’t sign just [because of him]. I had a trial. I did very well. I scored against Macclesfield in my first match after only two days’ training.
“Stuart [Pearce, City’s manager at the time] decided to sign me after three days.
“For me it was another new experience, playing with a big team, with big names like Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler. I used to see them playing when I was a kid.
“But it wasn’t really shocking to me, because I’d trained at United with Neville, Forlan, Keane… I had been there when I was younger.”
Yasser wasn’t the only player heading from Qatar to Man City around that time.
“I went to Belgium for the birth of my kid — because my wife is Belgian — and when I came back [to Manchester], I found Guardiola in the Marriott Hotel!” Yasser says.
“That was really funny because he had been playing in Qatar and we had just played one or two games against each other.”
Guardiola trained at City but ultimately opted against joining Yasser, who had already signed a permanent deal before the Spaniard arrived.
“We were sitting on the field after training. [Guardiola] wasn’t signing because [Pearce] only offered him a six-month contract. He said ‘I have a family… I’d prefer to go and play golf or stop my career.’”
Yasser earned a one-year contract at City.
His young agent at the time, Ramy Abbas (now the agent of Mohamed Salah), didn’t like the look of it. And there were bigger offers coming in from Qatar.
But Yasser was determined to make it in Europe, and one year was better than none.
When he got his work permit sorted in September, he soon found himself knocking on the door for a competitive start.
He got it in the Carling Cup.
“We started with a rotated squad, of course, not the full team,” Yasser says.
“Stephen Ireland had his debut as well. For Doncaster, it was the game of the year. They had a two-and-a-half-meter striker! For me it was a new experience to really play with the first team.
“I almost scored, it’s true, I had some chances at the start.
“I remember it very well. I had only one mistake. On the right-hand side I slipped and it led to a dangerous cross after. That was the only thing.”
But Yasser was subbed and City crashed out on penalties.
It wasn’t for another month that the Qatari made another first-team squad.
“I was on the bench against Arsenal in London,” he remembers. “The night before, Pearce told me that [Benarbia] had told him about me: that I was doing well, adapting, working very hard.
“I remember Andy [Cole] was sick that night also.
“It was my first time in the squad [for a Premier League match]. I was very happy because I started to feel like I was close to the team. That was what I was working for.”
It also was the day Robert Pires tried — and failed — to pass from a penalty kick.
Relationship with Pearce
That was Yasser’s last involvement for City, and he regrets not getting more chances.
“I only played one game, 70 minutes, with Pearce. [He gave] Stephen Ireland the chance again and again and again… I didn’t get the same chance.
“When I think about it now, Pearce wasn’t the right type of coach for me, for my style of playing. He liked tackles and long balls.
“That’s what Guardiola told me when we were together. He said, ‘You will never play here.’
“When I asked him why, he said ‘Because they play a long ball to Cole or to Vassell from Danny Mills or David James. If I play here, if you play here, we’ll have no chance to touch the ball because they only want this way of playing.’”
Guardiola eventually got a chance to change that philosophy. But Yasser had to live with it.
Not that the former midfielder has anything personal against Pearce. In fact, City gave Yasser more attention than United had done.
“I got to play an international game and [Pearce] was there,” Yasser says.
“Qatar versus Argentina. It was one of my best international games, against Messi, Riquelme, Maxi Rodriguez… all those big names were there.
“He didn’t tell me he was coming to watch the game, and there was something mysterious about that, because when I came back afterwards he told me he was very happy with my performance, and that the club would look further with me — to stay on a longer contract.
“I got a small injury after that game, but I continued because I really wanted to play.”
City exit, next steps
From December, the promise of that contract extension seemed less likely, and Yasser got a big-money offer from Al Sadd back in Qatar.
“At that time maybe I made the wrong decision not staying longer in England,” he says.
“I took the easy way, because I already had a name in Qatar; I’d played here with big names. I thought, ‘I need to play.’
“If it had been the right people, the right coach, and the right moment for me [at City], it would have been a different story.”
City finished 15th at the end of the season 2005–06, while Yasser was winning a domestic treble in Qatar.
He later enjoyed success with Braga in Portugal, and then with two of the biggest and most successful clubs in Africa: Egyptian rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek.
After swapping Al Ahly for Zamalek, Yasser scored in three consecutive derbies against his old club.
“I still live like a big star when I go to Egypt,” he says, recalling the experience of playing in front of 100,000 fans in Cairo.
However, success in Egypt coincided with a more disappointing part of Yasser’s career.
A disagreement between Zamalek and the Qatari national side ultimately saw Yasser’s international career brought to a premature end at the 2011 Asian Cup.
And though he says there was “no big issue” with anyone in the national setup, he admits he’s still “very sad” about leaving the international game.
“I could have played 150 international games, maybe five or six more years with the national team,” he says.
Yasser looks back on his nomadic career with a mixture of pride and regret.
“Being in Africa, playing in Asia, playing in Europe: it wasn’t easy getting on a plane and moving to another country, then another country. To be settled is important.
“When you look at things with wiser eyes, things seem totally different.
“I think if I’d got a longer contract at City then I could have gone on loan somewhere, then come back to City for a longer time.
“But I made a big step coming out of Qatar. 20 years ago, you wouldn’t even recognise Qatar. But I made this big step. I convinced people.
“City and United didn’t sign me just because I came from Qatar, because they didn’t know where the hell Qatar was! I just showed I had the quality.”
Life goes on, of course, and Yasser is now thinking about how he can pass on his wealth of experience.
“I’d prefer to work in Europe again in my coaching career,” he says. “Maybe achieve something I didn’t achieve when I was a player.
“I know it’s not easy, but why not?”