• Sasha Podzorov

Gold Cup's Most Underrated: Akram Afif

While the Gold Cup isn’t necessarily the event where the world’s football stars shine brightest, it IS a place to find the next budding stars from the Caribbean, North America, and Central America. Players like Landon Donovan, Giovani Dos Santos, Chicharito, Alphonso Davies and Christian Pulisic have all impressed at the tournament during the early stages of their careers. While there have been some of those players this year - like the USA’s Daryl Dike or Guadeloupe’s Matthias Phaeton, just to name a couple - the player who has impressed me the most isn’t even from a CONCACAF nation. Qatar’s Akram Afif has easily been the most surprising player I’ve watched throughout the Gold Cup’s group stages.

Leading up to the tournament, I didn’t really know what to think of Qatar. I had expectations for every other nation, but the Qatari side was unknown to me. So, like any good journalist, I went to look up highlights. There aren’t a ton floating around on the Qatar national team, but I stumbled upon the 2019 Asia Cup final against Japan. A 3-1 win for Qatar. For a nation to win its first major title with a side of only domestic league players against a perennial powerhouse whose starting lineup featured a majority of players from Europe’s top 5 leagues, I knew there had to be someone pushing this team along. I had to find the team’s engine, the player who Qatar relied on for creativity. And although the highlights were less than 2 1/2 minutes long, it was clear to me who that player was: Akram Afif.

Afif had 3 goal contributions that night. Qatar’s first two goals were scored off an assist from Afif, and there would have been a third if a teammate didn’t miss a wide-open goal. After Japan brought a goal back, Afif stepped up to the penalty spot in the 83’ and put the ball in the back of the net with so much poise and confidence. I was intrigued. I had to learn more before the Gold Cup kicked off.

What I learned surprised me even more. Akram Afif is only 24, yet plays the game with the confidence and charisma of a veteran. Despite playing for Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League, he’s taken every step that promising young footballers across Europe’s top leagues do: play for the youth teams of some of the world’s best teams. On Oct. 1, 2012, at only 16 years old, Afif went on loan to Sevilla’s U-19 from Al-Sadd. At 18, once his loan with Sevilla ended, he continued his journey in Spain with Villareal’s U-19 squad. He turned pro at 18, once the Sevilla loan ended, and was loaned out from Al-Sadd to KAS Eupen, then in the Belgian Second Division. The club is owned by the Qatar government and the Aspire Zone foundation, for which Afif played youth academy ball in Doha. Afif helped lead Eupen to a second place finish in the Proximus League, scoring 8 goals and providing an assist as the club were promoted to Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League for only the second time.

But at the season’s conclusion, Afif’s loan with Eupen expired, and the day after parent club Al-Sadd sold him to Villareal on Jul 1, 2016 for an undisclosed transfer fee. He was the first Qatari signing in La Liga history. He was promptly loaned to Sporting Gijon, where he only made nine appearances. He returned back to Villareal at the end of June 2016, but was loaned back to Eupen, who remained in Belgium’s top flight. During the 17/18 season, Afif made 15 appearances in the Pro League, scoring once with three assists. Villarreal recalled Afif in January 2018 and sent him back to Al-Sadd, where this whole journey started. Al-Sadd signed him on a two-year loan, and in the second year also signed the legendary Xavi as manager. Under Xavi, Afif’s stalled career took on a new life. During the 2019 calendar year and 19-20 season, Afif won the Qatari Super Cup with Al-Sadd, was the top scorer and assist getter in the Qatari league, was named Qatari league player for the second straight year, won the AFC Asian Cup with his national team and was named Asian Footballer of the Year. Xavi has played with some of the best players in the history of the sport, so he knows good talent when he sees it. His praise for Afif when accepting the Asian Footballer of the Year award on his behalf was limitless.

““There are no limits for him,” Xavi said. “I have told him many times that he’s an amazing player and he has many capacities to play football.

Afif (left) and Xavi (right) accept awards for best player and manager of the Qatar Stars League.

“He’s a talent. He can play everywhere. It depends on him: his mentality, his ambition, because he has everything (required) to play football.”

But his compliments didn’t stop at just Afif. Xavi thinks highly of the Qatar national team as a whole - maybe because he sees real potential, or maybe because his paychecks are written by the wealthy businessmen who want to propel their country into the football spotlight with the 2022 World Cup.

Regardless, Xavi said:

“This generation is amazing. It’s an amazing generation that Qatar have. I think they will compete well in 2022 and I’m proud to be part of this project.”

Well, maybe Xavi was right. Because this Qatar team, despite the nature of controversy surrounding them and the 2022 World Cup bid, have proven that they are no pushover. This is a team that beat both South Korea and Japan en route to winning the 2019 Asian Cup; a team that stole a point in the 2019 Copa America group stage after being drawn with Paraguay and South American heavyweights Colombia and Argentina; a team that has, since 2018, beat Ecuador and Switzerland while playing to a draw with Ireland and Costa Rica in friendlies; a team who went unbeaten in the Gold Cup group stages: 3-3 with Panama, 4-0 against Grenada and 2-0 vs. Honduras to earn a Quarterfinal matchup with El Salvador Friday evening.

And the man who has been fueling this run for Qatar? None other than Akram Afif.

In the opening game against Panama, Afif had two goal contributions, including the opening goal in the 48th minute. After Panama quickly equalized, it was Afif who fed Almoez Ali with a through ball to take the lead.

Against Grenada, Afif showed off once again, scoring an absolute stunner in the 22nd minute and providing an assist off a corner kick in the 36th.

In the decisive third game, Afif’s presence in the Honduran box forced two defenders to mark him, allowing Homam Ahmed to score the opener. However, Afif isn’t perfect: he did miss a penalty in the same game.

As Qatar look to continue their dark horse run in the Gold Cup, a rematch with El Salvador awaits. When the teams last faced on July 4th, just days before the Gold Cup began, Qatar eked out a 1-0 win despite a red card in the 20th minute and only 31% possession. With a win, Qatar would become the second Asian team to reach the semifinals of the Gold Cup. And with another solid performance, teams might be looking to give Afif another shot to prove himself in Europe.

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