11. Akram Afif (Last Year: 52)
Sporting Gijon (ESP) / Qatar / Attacking Midfield
Words by Martin Lowe
The 2022 World Cup is the subject to plenty of column inches and pages among pages of internet comments concerning it’s awarding, it’s timing and generally Qatar’s capabilities of staging such an event in a comparably small nation, with an ill-conceived notion that it lacks footballing history. Focus for now hasn’t considered those on the pitch, but looking forward one man looks set to grace the front covers of plenty of previews inside Qatar and the world over, that being winger Akram Afif.
Afif’s year has been a year of progression. For many Asian players (Middle Eastern ones in particular) playing in Europe is the end goal, Afif instead was looking to go one step further, as he was looking to move forward from an already European take off point. At KAS Eupen Afif helped inspire promotion to the Belgian Pro League last season, helping them along the way to a division high of goals, which he contributed 6 goals from 16 games. His progress wasn’t going by unnoticed, and still with months to go until he turned 20 he made the move to Villarreal in Spain’s La Liga.
This was undoubtedly a defining moment in the player’s history, but also in Qatari football sense, with the Aspire Academy taking at least partial credit for his transfer. As I discussed last year, the Academy has always had close links with clubs in Spain, so it was inevitable that eventually the star players would be given a go with one of them. The impressive thing however is how early this has come; Afif at 20 has broken through an important door that others can follow.
He immediately went on loan to fellow La Liga club Sporting Gijon, where he’s been mainly used as a substitute at the start of this season, including minutes away at Atletico Madrid and at home to Valencia. While this outpost might not have too much future in it, the experience gained by even being part of such a set up in one of the best leagues in the world can only do his cause good.
Back in Qatar, his transfer has propelled the young winger into a new dimension of exposure. After making his national team debut at the latter end of last year, Afif has been a firm member of the squad ever since, starting in matches against Uzbekistan and their important home victory over Syria. He remains a potent weapon, if not from the start then from the bench thanks to his electric pace and trickery to get past his full back.
With every given month he is part of his club squad in Spain, Afif’s stock rises in importance back in Qatar. By the time 2022 rolls around, Afif will just be turning 26 as the World Cup kicks off in the winter. Prepare yourselves to be hearing plenty more of this player on the run up to it.
Highlight of the Year: Looking an accomplished star at the Under 23s
Off the pitch, his transfer to Spain will obviously go down as Akram Afif’s personal highlight. However on it, he’ll look back to the start of the year, where he excelled at a home Under 23 Championship where he effortlessly guided Qatar through to the semi-finals.
Notable highlights, included a superb solo display against Syria in the group stage; setting up Abdelkarim Hassan via a deflected free-kick for Qatar’s equaliser, before bursting through the Syrian midfield and teeing up Ahmed Alaa to put them in front. His all round game was incredible throughout the tournament, he looked a clear level or two above his peers. In the end he nearly forced Qatar through to Olympic qualification, assisting Alaa again against Iraq in the Bronze medal match, before being let down by defensive errors that in the end swung the match and Qatar’s qualification hopes.