Doha: Qatar’s main playmaker Akram Afif is perhaps the World Cup host country’s greatest asset and worry wrapped up in one.
The 25-year-old striker, crowned Asia’s player of the year in 2019 and more famous for setting up goals than scoring them, has become essential to the Gulf Arab state’s soccer success.
“Always, when he is there, he finds solutions for the team. Without him it would be a big problem,” said former Qatari forward Mohamed Mubarak al-Mohannadi.
During the Asia Cup tournament in 2019, which Qatar won, Afif’s assists supplied most of the nine record-setting goals Almoaz Ali scored.
Afif “can make something happen in a second. He’s exciting. He plays off the left, likes to cut inside and he can score goals,” said Tim Cahill, the retired Australia forward who is chief sport officer at Qatar’s Aspire Academy, from which Afif graduated.
The moves that Afif sets up are so critical to Qatar’s success that if something goes awry and Afif is not on the pitch everything could unravel.
“When Akram does not play, the national team is a lot less dangerous. Offensively, it’s almost toothless and you can really see it in the team’s confidence levels,” said Ahmed Hashim, editor of Qatar Football Live, a twitter channel, and a longtime observer of the game in Qatar.
“Akram staying fit and at his top levels is very, very crucial for Qatar.” That is perhaps why Qatar’s league wrapped up its fixtures earlier this year and Afif, along with Qatar’s other players, have been sequestered in a series of national training camps in Spain and Austria since the beginning of the summer.
Afif was born in the Gulf Arab state where his Tanzanian-born father of Somali descent was playing for prominent local club Al Ittihad. Akram’s older brother Ali plays for Al-Duhail.
Afif has long been touted as one of the most promising talents in the region and has played in Belgium with Qatari-owned Kas Eupen as well as becoming the first Qatari to feature in Spain’s La Liga with Sporting Gijon.
He returned to Qatar in 2018 to join leading club Al Sadd, where Spanish World Cup-winner Xavi Hernandez played and then managed until last year.
The Qatar World Cup is Afif’s big opportunity to play on the world stage and, perhaps, to draw the attention of scouts and clubs beyond the Gulf Arab state, Hashim said.
“He still has a lot of potential even at the age of 25. This is his moment.”