Youssef El Jebli arrived unheralded in the Saudi Professional League, but with words of encouragement from a lauded compatriot in his ears.
This football education administered on the streets of Utrecht by ex-PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Netherlands attacking midfielder Ibrahim Afellay has translated into exceptional performances more than 5,000 kilometres away. It is some transformation for a player who combined amateur football in the lower leagues with work at Albert Heijn, his country’s largest supermarket chain, for six years until the Eredivisie’s De Graafschap paid €50,000 for him in July 2015.
El Jebli took to the field on Tuesday evening’s restart, after five months of inaction because of coronavirus, as one of the best performers in a star-studded competition.
Al Faisaly’s astute call last August to snap the schemer up on a two-year contract has been rewarded with a leading nine assists. This is one more than fellow Dutch/Moroccan Nordin Amrabat of champions Al Nassr and three more than Al Hilal’s lauded ex-Italy maverick Sebastian Giovinco, among others.
He didn’t add to this haul in the 2-1 victory over sixth-placed Al Taawoun, but this result increases hope unfashionable Faisaly can gatecrash the top three from fifth and gain historic 2021 AFC Champions League qualification. Such success may also see a famous name pop up on his phone again.
“He [Afellay] was very inspirational,” the effusive 27-year-old tells Sport360 from his hotel base at provincial Al Majma’ah. “I know him, personally.
“I’m in contact with him. My friends know him, my whole family does.
“When I saw him at PSV, I thought ‘what a good player, I want to be like him’.
“Sometimes we played in the streets and he came with his little brother, giving me some good advice: ‘Listen to this, don’t do that, it’s not only about football, you have to be a good person and not make trouble.’
“In these days, I’m still in contact with him on the phone. He was, certainly, a very good person for me.”
Shared exposure to Utrecht’s famous amateurs USV Elinkwijk – a club that also helped develop Ismail Aissati and Zakaria Labyad – had seemed to be the only tangible comparison to Afellay when El Jebli was coming through at minnows USV Hercules and Lienden.
Failed trials as a teenager at the likes of PSV appeared to close the door on a professional career.
A formative experience, instead, spent at Albert Heijn is cherished by the unassuming El Jebli. Even the guarantee of a hallowed professional contract could not stop him finishing up responsibilities for a person who is proud he “stayed as myself”.
He says: “I worked six years in the supermarket. I was [there] 16 until 22.
“When I signed my contract at De Graafschap, I still worked there for two or three weeks before I started training.
“People were asking: ‘What are you doing here? You signed for a club at the highest level.’
“But for me, I stayed as myself. I wasn’t going to change.
“I worked my three weeks and thanked them for my time. It was strange as I was working in a supermarket, but knew I was going to play in the Eredivisie.”
Graafschap bounced between the first and second divisions, yet El Jebli’s displays remained consistent. A strong 2018/19, that featured 11 goals and 11 assists in 38 run-outs, was enough to convince Faisaly of his worth.
Their investment – estimated at €2.5-3 million – has procured them a dead-ball specialist; seven of 10 assists and two of seven goals in all competitions have come from this source. Such efficiency is essential for Pericles Chamusca’s side, who boast a slender goal difference of +5 and whose strength is drawn from a defence breached only 27 times in 23 games.
An ability to add to this burgeoning reputation in the Kingdom – largely coming off the right in a 4-2-3-1 formation – has yet to catch the eye of Morocco’s selectors, even though internationals Amrabat and Al Ittihad’s Karim El Ahmadi are confirmed fans.
“It is always a dream to play for your country,” El Jebli says. “But I don’t know if they look at me like this.
“From my experience, I want to play for them badly. I have also contact with Nordin Amrabat and Karim El Ahmadi.
“If you see them play and they speak to you about Morocco; the land, the team and how the fans are – there are beautiful, beautiful people everywhere in the country.
“It is a dream to me for one time. If I get a small, small chance only to train with them, it’d be good!
“But I’m almost 28. I’m not giving up the dream, but it is difficult now.”
Another “dream” for El Jebli was a switch to Saudi. Study about the league had begun with his father a decade prior.
Interestingly, Faisaly weren’t at the front of the queue when the chance to move arrived…
He reveals: “I had a good season in Holland, so I heard some clubs in Saudi were interested. But still, they have to call.
“If they don’t call, you are not going. Al Hazem wanted me first, but the feeling wasn’t good.
“They were too many people involved in the deal. After that, Al Faisaly came and I was very happy.
“I Googled a little bit and saw they’d had three or four good seasons. I called my parents and told them directly that a club in Saudi were interested in me.
“Still, I was not happy, happy. This is because you never know in football.
“If you are not signed, you are not a player for Al Faisaly, you know?
“I was very happy at first, but I knew when you sign you are then a Faisaly player. It was a dream come true when I heard that they were interested in me and my season in De Graafschap was enough for them to call me.”
An undefeated three-match stretch, which contained a 3-2 victory versus holders Nassr, was brought to an unavoidable halt by March’s proliferation of coronavirus.
With cases and fatalities on the decline, life in the Kingdom is patiently returning to normality. With this comes football’s anticipated return.
Home fixtures against fellow contenders Al Wehda and Al Ahli Jeddah this month already appear pivotal to Faisaly’s hopes of continental football.
This would mark another remarkable achievement in El Jebli’s remarkable career.
“It was difficult with this coronavirus, some players were scared for their family,” he says. “When we were hearing ‘maybe they’ll finish the league, maybe they’ll stop the league’…
“We are football players, of course. We want to achieve the highest position in the competition.
“But also, we are human beings. Our life is more important than football.
“It is under control and there are some good rules for the coronavirus. Also, when they say ‘we will finish the league’ then we are professional players and we have to get ready again.
“We want to achieve the Champions League. Ahli and Wehda are coming to Al Majma’ah.
“We can achieve a good thing here.”
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