Afif helps Qatar exorcise World Cup demons at Asian Cup

Afif helps Qatar exorcise World Cup demons at Asian Cup

© AFP 2022
January 18, 2024 at 9:12 AM
Akram Afif has been Qatar's main man at the Asian Cup so far
Akram Afif has been Qatar's main man at the Asian Cup so far. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP
Source: AFP

Asian Cup hosts and holders Qatar have been on a mission to banish the painful memory of their 2022 World Cup flop and forward Akram Afif is leading the charge.

Qatar lost all three of their World Cup games on home soil on their way to a first-round exit just over a year ago, the worst record of any host in the competition's history.

But it's been a different story at the Asian Cup -- albeit after only two games against moderate opposition -- and Tintin Marquez's side are the first to reach the knockout rounds.

Much of their success is down to Afif, who scored twice in their opening 3-0 win over Lebanon and notched another as they beat debutants Tajikistan.

The 27-year-old says Qatar have "forgotten about the World Cup" and are focused only on retaining their continental title.

"It's not only me -- there are 11 players," Afif said after Wednesday's 1-0 win over Tajikistan propelled them into the next round.

"Akram Afif wouldn't have delivered without the support of his teammates and coaches."

Afif was one of the stars of the 2019 Asian Cup, where his partnership with nine-goal striker Almoez Ali helped Qatar lift the trophy for the first time.

Both players started all three matches at the World Cup but failed to score in defeats to Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands.

Now back on the goal trail, Afif says the pair "understand what each other is going to do just with a look".

But it is Afif, with three goals to Ali's one, who has taken centre stage in the early stages of the Asian Cup.

Ominous warning

Qatar replaced coach Felix Sanchez with Carlos Queiroz after the World Cup, but they changed direction again when they brought in Marquez only one month before the Asian Cup.

Coming so close to the tournament, it was a huge gamble.

But the Spaniard knows Qatar football well after coaching club side Al-Wakrah for five years, following a previous stint at the country's Aspire Academy.

"I coached Akram six years ago when he was young and I knew that he was an outstanding player who could make a difference," said Marquez.

"I am very happy to see him evolve into the player he is today."

As well as helping to erase some difficult World Cup memories, Afif's goals could propel him into the shop window of European clubs.

He has played for Qatar side Al-Sadd since 2020 but had an extended stint in Europe earlier in his career with spells in Belgium and Spain.

He said he would "play in Europe tomorrow if possible", but is cautious as he enters what should be his peak years.

"If I go to Europe and sit on the bench, it's better to stay in my country and play," he said.

"I know I need to fight to play but it's not easy to just go to Europe tomorrow and play. I am helping my country."

Qatar are assured of top spot in Group A regardless of what happens in their final group game against China on Monday.

In an ominous warning for the rest of the competition, Afif said "the best is still to come" in his partnership with Ali.

"We are living today in a new day," he said, as the World Cup fades further into the past.

"Every day is a chance to compete and to fight for a chance to hold the cup."

© AFP 2022 photo
© AFP 2022