Back at, not quite where it all began, but certainly an important juncture in his burgeoning football journey, Yahya Al Ghassani is provided with an opportunity, finally, to take stock.
It has been a whirlwind few weeks since Al Ghassani struck the goal that sealed a first UAE top-flight title in seven years for Shabab Al Ahli, the club he supported as a boy.
The celebrations have been understandably prolonged, the Dubai side commemorating their Adnoc Pro League success alongside dignitaries, club sponsors and supporters.
There was even an audience with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
As Al Ghassani sits here now, in a classroom at his old Dubai Carmel School following an afternoon meeting his former principal, teachers and staff – the visit included a kickabout and Q&A with the class of 2023 – it hits home just how far he’s come.
“It’s an incredible journey,” Al Ghassani tells The National. “And still the beginning. But let’s talk from now, it’s incredible. Because as a kid you always dream to make it, to win titles, to be the best player. But seeing this achieved and feeling it, how it feels to be one of the champions, and one of the main reasons of the team to win the league, it feels really different.
“And to come to the school where I used to play, and where I won some trophies; I know how priceless this feeling is right now. I can’t even explain to people how I feel from inside … because even when I talk, the words would not be the right ones to say.”
Al Ghassani, engaging and erudite, doesn’t need to find the words while he watches back in silence the goal that last month brought him to where he is now.
He has viewed the championship winner against Baniyas countless times since – he reckons most recently this very morning – the sensation washing over him each time, the emotion of the moment still as raw as that night in Al Shamkha on the north-eastern side of Abu Dhabi.
“I was really connected to God at that time; on the field, even I had a really close connection to Allah,” Al Ghassani says as the clip plays out. “But seeing the people crying after I scored the goal … if everyone talking to me asked me, ‘You want to have 10, 15 goals in the season or score the last goal, the goal that will make everyone happy?’, I will score that one.
“Because I don’t care if I’m top scorer in the league, to be the best player – it’s an individual thing. This is another thing. Even you saw the Sheikh was so, so happy. He was dancing. It’s the first time I see the Sheikh dancing for a trophy in football.
"This year was unforgettable for me. Because everyone is happy: family, kids, if you see the school people here, the kids, my principal. Being able to make the people happy, this is the most important prize I ever get.”
Al Ghassani, 25, recognises better than most the significance of the title to Shabab Al Ahli supporters. He is one himself, a product of the club’s youth system who joined aged 11 and, other than three years at Al Wahda from 2018, has spent his entire career there.
Al Ghassani grew up in nearby Sharjah; Dubai Carmel School is minutes by car from Shabab Al Ahli’s Rashid Stadium. Clearly, the club has been a constant in his life.
“I was in the academy, going to matches, so I watched Al Ahli [the club's name before a 2017 merger] celebrate the league title in 2016 – their last league title,” Al Ghassani says. “So, imagine, as a kid I was celebrating with them in the stadium, and then they never won it.
“Then you come again, you’re in the first team, you play for your hometown team, and then you win it, and you are the one who scored the winning goal.
“All of it, if you give me a paper to write what I want in the season, I will not even mention it. So it’s a really, really unbelievable feeling. As soon as the whistle blew it felt a relief, but I was a really, really happy man. Straight away I remember my years in the academy.”
Long tipped as one of UAE football’s brightest prospects, Al Ghassani attributes his impact last season – nine goals, six assists, most probably the 2022/23 Golden Ball for the league's best Emirati – to several contributing factors.
His ever-increasing maturity; the personal challenges overcome – “the people who are close to me know the things I went through”; the professional support from then-manager Leonardo Jardim.
Last summer, Al Ghassani was close to a transfer to Spain, but it did not go through. Jardim then confirmed to the winger that he wanted him to stay, placing his trust in a player with an obvious talent and tenacity.
Having repaid that faith, Al Ghassani is focussed now on what comes next.
“I have to be proud of what I did, and to build on that,” he says. “Because I don’t have to stop. This is not my only goal.
“My strategy is to start step-by-step. My objective will be to qualify first from the group stages of the Asian Champions League and to win this trophy, which is missing in our cabinet.
“And then to stay on top in the league, of course. Because we don’t want to finish second, we want to finish top always. As Sheikh Mohammed, His Highness, said, ‘To be on the top is easy but to stay is really hard’. So we will try to follow that strategy also.”
The lofty goals, though, aren’t confined to Shabab Al Ahli.
“In the winter – this is my biggest objective also – is to win something with the national team, which is the biggest competition in Asia: the Asian Cup,” Al Ghassani says. “We have hopes and, from now on, I’m really aiming for that tournament to be one of the reasons to make the people happy and to win it.”
Given the current flux around the national team – former Portugal and South Korea boss Paulo Bento was on Sunday installed as UAE manager – a first Asian Cup title might, at present, seem fanciful.
Semi-finalists in the past two editions, the UAE have been drawn in the January 12-February 10 tournament in Group C, alongside Iran, Hong Kong and Palestine.
Asked how the team can deliver in Qatar, Al Ghassani says: “As a group, we have to work together. We have to have discipline. We have to know that we are not a footballer only, we come from country that our leaders try to be No 1 in everything.
“We must put this in our minds. In the end, it’s football, you never know, you can’t guess the results. It is why we love it.”
His affection for the game palpable, Al Ghassani aspires to at some point showcase his skills to a wider audience. There was a concrete proposal from Cadiz in La Liga last year – he would’ve been the first Emirati to ply his trade in a major European league – while clubs in Saudi Arabia, chiefly champions Al Ittihad and Al Fayha, have registered a strong interest.
“My first goal until now was to go to Europe and to play,” Al Ghassani says. “My imagining is to make it big there, not just to go and show I’m the first Emirati player.
“To go there, I have to take things step-by-step – I still have a lot to give Shabab Al Ahli – to be the best everywhere I go, so I can prove to myself that I can go to Europe and be the best.
“I don’t think players in Europe are different than us players in the Gulf countries. Everything is achievable if you work hard. If you set a goal, you follow the plan and you give the effort, sacrifice everything for football, it will give you back. I’m sure of this.
“And, Inshallah, one time you will see me there and you will interview me there.”
Al Ghassani delivers the final comment with a wide smile, a staple of the time spent in his company. Perhaps his easy disposition comes from when he began watching football because of Robinho, memorised by the Brazilian’s flair, by the “jogo bonito”.
Al Ghassani, however, soon switched allegiances to Cristiano Ronaldo, inspired not only by the Portuguese forward’s talent, but his temperament.
Ronaldo, of course, plays now at Al Nassr in Riyadh.
“It’s a feeling that even I cannot describe, to be able to share a pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo,” Al Ghassani says. “I don’t call him a footballer, he’s the greatest athlete.
“Because he’s the right role model; he sacrifices more than all players, all athletes. That’s why he’s getting the rewards he's getting now. He works the hardest. If you choose the wrong role model you won’t have success.”
Patently, being an inspiration to others matters to Al Ghassani.
“For myself, I have to be the right person, I have to show the kids what they have to do,” he says. “I don’t like to act it, it’s natural. Since I was a kid, I was trying to be like this, inside the field, outside the field, in the family.
“I had a certain belief in myself that I can inspire the next generation. So having this right now and building on this, and coming back to my old school, seeing my old principal and teachers, even the old sports teacher, gives me chills in my body.
“It’s an honour, the most special I can have outside the field.”