Hussein Yasser: the man from Qatar that signed for Man Utd and Man City
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It is matchday and Rene Meulensteen is wandering around the FedEx Field stadium in Landover, Maryland as Manchester United prepare to end their three-week tour of America with a clash against European champions Barcelona.
Two months earlier, the mighty Blaugrana secured another Champions League title after a dominant display against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Wembley. Still, this was a chance to gain revenge - even if it was just a pre-season friendly.
On Saturday, July 31, 2011, with just a couple of hours to go until kick-off, United first-team coach Meulensteen locked eyes with Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who was "mooching" around one of the many hallways inside the FedEx.
He decided to go over for a chat.
"I firstly congratulated him for winning the Champions League but I don't think he recognised me at all," Meulensteen tells SPORTbible.
"He asked me to refresh his memory, so I said, 'Do you remember when you were on trial at Manchester City and there was a young boy from Qatar?' He nodded, so I explained that I was the person who brought that boy to England."
Six years earlier, Meulensteen walked into the Marriott Hotel in Manchester to meet Hussein Yasser when he bumped into Guardiola. The Spaniard, who was 34 at the time, was looking for one last challenge before retiring and wanted to test himself in England's top flight.
Pep was on trial with Manchester City and so was Yasser. They stayed in the same hotel, ate lunch together and quickly became good friends, so when Muelensteen went to catch up with the Qatar international for a coffee, they all got talking.
"I reminded him that we had a chat in that hotel for two hours about football," Meulensteen remembers. "He said 'yeah, of course!'
"He asked what happened to Hussein. We had a great conversation about him. I said, 'you must have seen Hussein play when you were training with him.' Pep said he was an exceptional talent but he just wasn't suited to English football."
Guardiola spent eight days at City in the summer of 2005. He was offered a short term deal after the trial period but decided to turn it down in favour of a move to Dorados De Sinaloa in Mexico – a team that was coached by Juanma Lillo, his current assistant manager.
Hussein Yasser was also offered a contract after his trial and, after some tough negotiations, the pacey winger would eventually accept.
Today, he says that decision was the standout regret of his career. And this is a man who never made a single appearance under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. "When I look back, I think that was the biggest mistake," Yasser tells SPORTbible.
Not many people can say they have signed for Manchester United and Manchester City.
In recent times, Peter Schmeichel, Andy Cole and Carlos Tevez have made the short journey from Old Trafford to Maine Road, or the Etihad as it now stands. And before that, Denis Law, Brian Kidd and Terry Cooke swapped the famous red for blue.
But what about Hussein Yasser? What happened to the only player from Qatar to sign for both clubs?
In the early 90s, football in the Middle East was becoming more and more popular as the Qatar national team reached their highest ever FIFA ranking in 1993.
Rene Meulensteen, a coach that would soon become a huge part of Yasser's career, arrived in the Arab country around that period of growth with a goal.
Meulensteen made the bold decision to move away from his native Holland to work in Qatar with respected coach Wiel Coerver; the man behind the famous Coerver Method – a concept based on individual skill progression, and the development of tactical awareness through drills carried out in small groups.
In simple terms, the pair wanted to try and prove that you can take a young kid from anywhere in the world, put them in the right environment and make them into a skilful football player. That was their brief. And here is where they first met Hussein.
"He was one of the hundreds of kids we scanned," Meulensteen tells SPORTbible. "Then eventually, we brought the group back to around 34 boys. My first impression of Hussein was that he was enormously mobile and agile. He was very quick in the first 10 or 15 yards.
"There were a lot of good ones in that group but I felt Hussein was the best."
To put his confidence in Yasser's ability into perspective, Meulensteen believes he would have progressed through Barcelona's famed La Masia system if he was given the opportunity. "He would have probably made it through there," he added.
"The level of skill and intelligence that he had. And you know Barcelona, they don't care about height and strength. And sometimes, you need to be in the right area and the right place. But that was one of the reasons why I wanted to bring him to United."
Eight years after arriving in Qatar to expand his horizons in the coaching world, Meulensteen was offered a job to work alongside some of football's most talented individuals at Manchester United. It didn't take him long to recommend one of his former students.
"I signed this contract as the skills development coach and for me, Hussein was the proof in the pudding," the 57-year-old says. "I wanted to show them someone who had lived all of his young life in Qatar and was actually good enough. He trained with us seven days a week out there and absorbed everything we taught him like a sponge.
"I wanted to bring in players that were completely comfortable on the ball and could dominate anyone in any situation on the pitch. Hussein was technically good at the one against one drill, but he was also very good in combination play. He understood one-touch football, no problem. He would never give the ball away – a very, very intelligent player."
So how did a teenage Yasser react to the news that one of the biggest clubs in world football wanted to give him a chance? "I remember Rene saying he would like to bring me for a trial at Manchester United. I really couldn't believe it," he says. "I was going to play with Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane. All the big names."
Meulensteen was convinced by Yasser's talent. After showing coaches at United a clip of the pacey winger in action for Qatar's youth team during a tournament in Thailand, the teenager was eventually handed a contract after a brief trial period.
It was a dream come true. In a meeting room at the club's training ground, Yasser was joined by Meulensteen and first-team manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who handed out some advice to the youngster. It was, admittedly, a "little difficult" to understand his Scottish accent but those words of wisdom have stuck with him, 20 years on.
"Ferguson gave me a lot of confidence," recalls Yasser. "He said, 'The future is in front of you. It's all up to you from here. We strongly believe that when we sign anyone at United, we see something. We see the talent that you have, but you're still only 18 years old. You are coming from a different world. You need to adapt'."
Yasser was now mixing with winners on a daily basis. The culture and values around United's training ground are cemented in his mind, too. He remembers sitting next to World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez at lunch as all the different age groups sat together.
"When we were having lunch, you sat around all of the big names," he grins. "And you don't see that in other cultures. I mean, the isolation between the first team and reserves was clear in most clubs, especially at that time, but United was different. Everybody was gathered together. From the youth department to the biggest achievers. It was amazing.
"I remember Sir Alex used to know everybody's name at the club," added Yasser. "He would walk around and watch every age group. That was a big motivation for everybody. Most first-team coaches nowadays don't give a damn about the youth department but he gave hope to everyone.
"It just felt like United were one big family. They were very supportive of me and I felt really happy to be there."
He quickly made a good impression at United. In fact, it didn't take long for the teenager to be called up to play with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy, as Sir Alex Ferguson watched on from the touchline with high hopes.
"Hussein trained a few times with the first team and honestly he didn't look out of place at all," Meulensteen says. "Not at all."
Yasser was enjoying life in Manchester but after a number of weeks, it was decided that the teenager would spend three years on loan at Belgium-based feeder club Royal Antwerp as he awaited a work permit. It was a key period in his development.
From an individual perspective, the first year in Antwerp was a success. He was a regular in the first team and impressed onlookers, including Meulensteen and Jim Ryan, United's director of youth football at the time. "He had a very good season there," Meulensteen recalls.
"He was playing some great stuff and scored some cracking goals. He was fucking exciting to watch. For me, you need to have a quick brain, quick feet and a big heart. Hussein had all of those. And the better players you play with, the easier it gets. It was a shame Antwerp got relegated."
He may have performed well from a selfish point of view but Antwerp struggled that season. They were relegated from the first division after a poor campaign.
"I wanted to see myself in a better place," Yasser says. "I thought I played really well in the first season at Antwerp, but I felt like they really didn't care much about us. Even the English players... you could see that. And the English players didn't like it. Nobody stayed there long. I just found it hard to improve and grow. That's why I didn't want to stay for the second year."
After finding things difficult during his second season in Belgium, Yasser decided to call a meeting with United to try and force a loan move elsewhere. He told them of his desire to leave Antwerp for a bigger club but the request was turned down.
People at United were "not really convinced" he was good enough to get a contract, says Meulensteen, so both parties went their separate ways.
"Looking back, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I thought I had given my best," Yasser admits. "And even if I stayed for three or four years in Belgium, I don't think I could have broken into the first team at United because it was such a huge difference in quality.
"I needed to improve. Of course, you need to gain experience and I was happy with that step, but I felt like I needed to take another step up at the time. I think United could have given me another chance to play somewhere else, but it wasn't meant to be."
Yasser would join Cypriot first division side Limassol after leaving Old Trafford without making a single first-team appearance. Then, after spending a season living on the sunny southern coast of Cyprus, he would eventually leave to join Al Sadd in his homeland.
Despite a lack of stability at club level, he was playing regularly for the Qatar national team and, while playing in the Gulf Cup for his country – a competition that Qatar would go on to win – a Manchester City legend was watching with intent.
Ali Benarbia, who was playing in the Qatar Stars League for Al-Rayyan at the time, was keen to have a chat.
"I remember him saying, 'I want you to come to Manchester City'," Yasser says. "It was a big shock. I couldn't believe it when he told me. He explained he used to play at City when Stuart Pearce was there. Shaun Wright Phillips was about to leave City for Chelsea at the time and I played on the wing.”
Former Algerian international Bernarbia, who spent two memorable years at City in the early 00's, briefed Pearce about Yasser's talents.
"He said that I was a very good, technical player and Pearce 'trusted' Ali's eyes when it came to spotting players," recalls Yasser. "I felt like this was my time to stage a comeback. I was very happy to go back to England."
As talks were ongoing, City wanted to see more of the talented winger so they offered him a trial in 2005. After just two days of training, he was thrown into the line-up to play in a friendly against Macclesfield – a game that finished 1-1.
Stuart Pearce was impressed and with his former coach Rene Meulensteen in attendance that day, Yasser had done enough to earn a contract. The next day, he was approached by Pearce, who joked, 'who do you want to talk about your contract? Your lawyer or Ali [Bernabia]?'"
At the time, Hussein Yasser wasn't the only player on trial in Manchester.
"I was in the Marriott Hotel and the club sent a car to come and pick me up for training," Yasser remembers. "And out of nowhere, Pep Guardiola jumped in with me. I didn't have a clue he was in Manchester. I was shocked. I actually asked him 'what are you doing?'"
A few weeks earlier, the pair shook hands as opponents when Guardiola was playing for Qatar-based club Al Ahli, but they never spoke until that day in the car. "We spent lots of time with each other," Yasser remembers. "We spent a few days at the hotel, having lunch and talking about football."
Guardiola, who later turned down a six-month deal at City, was transparent with his new friend as they trialled together.
"He told me, 'you will never play here [at City]'. I was laughing. I asked why and he said, 'because this is not our type of football. Even for me now, I cannot play on that wave level because they play long ball. I mean, we want the ball at our feet to show our quality, and you would just be looking up all the game'."
City would end up offering Yasser a one-year contract but after the club engaged in talks with his lawyer, Ramy Abbas, he would eventually sign a six-month deal. It was a decision he would later regret.
"My lawyer expected that I would earn a bigger contract because I was playing with the first team," Yasser says. "Eventually, it was agreed that I would earn the same amount of money but for six months. When I look back, I think that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life."
Yasser didn't have much time to make an impression. He eventually picked up his work permit in September and spent time with the reserves before training with Pearce’s first-team squad. After that, he would finally make his competitive debut – a Carling Cup clash against Doncaster.
A place on the subs bench against Arsenal followed but again, time was not on his side. To rub salt into the wounds, Yasser picked up a knee injury at the beginning of December in an international game against Argentina. "It wasn't a big injury," he says. "I overstretched my ligament and it took me a month to recover. When I came back to City, everything was different."
It was confirmed in January that Yasser’s contract would not be extended beyond the six month period.
Before that disappointing decision was made, the winger remained hopeful that an agreement could be ironed out. “Pearce picked up on my quality. I just needed to adapt to the way of playing," Yasser says. "It was just the beginning for me and I was hoping to develop in time, but It just didn't work out in the end."
With some further reflection, Yasser knows, deep down, that things wouldn't have worked out beyond that point.
"If there had been the right coach and the right moment for me at City, it would have been a different story. But [Guardiola] told me the truth that day in the hotel. It's true," Yasser admits. "I would never have had a chance to play much with Stuart's way of playing.
"Although he signed me - and was convinced that I was a good player – I don't think it would have worked out beyond the six-month contract."
With the bitter disappointment of City’s decision now firmly behind him, Yasser would jump on a plane and return to Qatar to play for top-tier side Al Rayyan. In the coming years, he would enjoy spells at Braga, Boavista, Zamalek and Lierse in Belgium before playing his final game in professional football for Al-Wakrah in 2016.
He would never quite hit the heights of top-flight football in England but two decades after leaving Manchester behind, the incredibly likeable Yasser, who is currently studying for his UEFA 'A' coaching licence, has lofty ambitions.
Currently the reserve team manager of Egyptian club Zamalek, things are going well in Cairo. He is enjoying life in Egypt's capital but the eventual goal is to coach in Europe. In fact, Yasser feels there is some unfinished business at one of his former clubs in the North West.
"I hope to join Manchester City one day," he beams. "It was an amazing experience. Pep is one of the best coaches in the world for one of the best teams. I hope we meet again and work together in football. I would love to do that, of course.
“I hope that somebody will give me the chance to coach in Europe one day, why not? That is my dream."
As he speaks about coaching — and his experiences of playing abroad - an encounter with a Manchester City fan last year reminds him of what Europe has to offer, and the memories he left behind; despite such a brief stay in England.
"I was shocked," Yasser says. "I was sitting in a restaurant over here in Cairo and an English guy came to me. He said, 'Yasser, I know you. You are a former City player.' I said, 'what the hell' because I only played one game. He was a huge fan of City and even took a picture with me. To be remembered like that, when I barely played, was amazing.
"As I said, I only played one match for City. I hope I can get that game on video one day. It means a lot."