There was something special about this kid, something that made his move to a Qatari-owned club in Europe all the more different. A nation constantly scrutinized and criticized by media and fans around the world due to the highly controversial issues that surround them, may finally have a European-based star to cheer on. A player to cheer for, a generation to look forward to, on rocky road to Doha.
GCC nations tend to pay truckloads of money to keep their players away from scouts scouring the Middle East, in their bid to discover yet another reluctant footballing gem. Yasser Al-Qahtani, Bader Al-Mutawa and now Omar Abdulrahman are all players famed in the Arab World but have never taken the next step or will never make that defining decision. Akram Afif is of a different mould, brought up in a generation of change for the miniature Gulf nation: Qatar.
Born to a Tanzanian father and a Yemeni mother, Afif was one of the stars of the Aspire Academy opened in 2004 to help develop young Qatari athletes. Amongst the buildings and pitches of the academy are Spanish coaches, whom have been pivotal to the gradual rise of Qatari football. Felix Sanchez recently coached the Qatar U-23 National Team to a 4th place spot at the U-23 Asian Cup, meanwhile the next generation will be lucky enough to be watched over by the man himself, Xavi. Spain, indeed, is the destination of Akram Afif’s next stop.
With his skills honed at Al-Sadd, before being sent out on loan to Belgian First Division side Eupen alongside Ahmed Moein Doonzadeh and Fahad Al-Abdulrahman, many Arabic football fans with a close eye on the movement of Qatari footballers wondered whether it was merely a marketing ploy or an actual development plan. Moein returned to El-Jaish mid-way through the 2015/16 season to help them in their Asian Champions League battles, but Al-Abdulrahman and Afif saw out Eupen’s season helping them qualify to the Jupiler Pro League on the final day.
Afif’s season was topped off by coming 2nd in the Best Arab youngster in the Belgian First League, before a tumultuous 24 hours saw his move to Villareal announced sending shockwaves through Arab Twitter – especially in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. The latter have both produced a group of players worthy of playing abroad but the money has been too powerful. Reports have even come out that Afif’s contract is only worth 10% of a top-tier local player in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
Akram Afif is no stranger to Villareal, having spent half of 2014 amongst their youth ranks as a loanee in his second stint abroad; the first one being with fellow Spanish side Sevilla’s Juvenil side. But it wasn’t until late 2014 where Afif earned the plaudits, when he scored the winner against North Korea in the final to help Qatar to their maiden AFC U-19 title signaling a period of optimism for the gulf state’s youth ranks in the near future.
Afif sealed yet another European move months later, with a loan deal to Belgian First Division side KAS Eupen his next destination. He impressed upon his arrival, bagging an important goal on his debut and creating more than two for his teammates against Racing Mechelen in a 5-1 drubbing all in the space of the month. The attacking midfielder scored one more goal before the end of the season, although Eupen failed to earn promotion with a loss in the promotion play-offs.
Afif’s U-20 World Cup appearance over the summer, a tournament where he was arguably Qatar’s best player alongside former Eupen midfielder Ahmad Moein, added yet another landmark to his CV. From Qatar to Spain, through Belgium and all the way to Myanmar before setting off to New Zealand for the U-20 World Cup. All of this for a Qatari player yet to hit the age of 19. Akram Afif, truly an anomaly.
Despite his achievements abroad, it was only in late 2015 when Afif ultimately emerged on the Middle Eastern footballing scenery to wow the “Khaleeji” crowds and warrant a spot in the Qatari National Team. We’ve summarized as to why he may be a unique gem from the Middle East, but what makes this player so special on the pitch?
Akram Afif can operate anywhere across attacking midfield adeptly but he’s usually found on the left hand side where he can cut inside and create play. Playing under a Spanish coach for most of his national team career, which doesn’t surprise you when it comes to his role as a form of a wide playmaker.
Afif is nimble and creative; he also possesses a great level of acceleration to get ahead of opposition full backs. His ability to position himself in between the lines allows him to draw the full back away from the flank and subsequently the near centre back which in turn opens up space behind the defensive line.
The player has a range of abilities that would be aided by a position on the flanks rather than centrally. A playmaker he is, but his well-rounded skillset suits the modern day winger role on a greater level.
Akram Afif’s strengths lie in his technical and offensive attributes as previously mentioned. His ability to pitch in with goals likens him to recent Manchester City Nolito. The Qatari youngster, like Nolito, is more than just one-dimensional. He’s not merely a creator from a deeper wide position, but he can take on players with relative ease. Moreover, his off the ball movement is almost equally as good with his capabilities of running behind the defence and beating the offside line key to his multi-skilled type of play.
Afif’s play certainly needs polishing, but the raw talent has been on show for years in various tournaments across Europe, Asia and Oceania. He really is anything but the archetypal Middle Eastern winger whose main aim is to beat the defender, reach the byline and cross. In fact, Afif’s crossing is relatively rare. If anything, he plays low ones into the box which are strategically and statistically more beneficial for his team and the receiving player.
The changes in body movement is something that won’t catch the eye of Middle Eastern scouts who often solely look for a player’s influence in the final third. Whether it’s his head, his hands, his hips or his feet, Akram Afif beats defenders utilizing changes in his body movement. It’s a sneaky move used by the lad to draw defenders’ attention to one way before slipping an outside of the foot or backheel pass to an onrushing player on the edge of the box. Which means we’re moving on to his creative abilities.
7 assists at the AFC U-23 Asian Cup in 6 games is no mean feat. More than an efficient created chance per game, Afif once again proved that he may as well be in the top bracket of youngsters to come out of the region and that is a rarity for a GCC player – especially before the likes of Omar Abdulrahman were produced. Even so, Omar Abdulrahman never took the step to ply his trade in Europe as Afif is doing now.
His assists weren’t of the same type either. Set-pieces, through balls, combination play and lobbed passes were amongst the different forms of assists that Afif set up for his teammates. The versatility he possesses is second to none in Qatar and maybe across the region, coupled with the quality and experience he has.
On the mental side, Afif is also pioneering for players back home. He often takes all set-pieces for Qatar’s youth teams – free-kicks, corners and penalties – alongside Abdelkarim Hassan (probably the only Qatari player on or near the level of Akram Afif). His penalty taking is an exemplar of his confidence with his stance, style of shooting, facial and body expressions all indicators of his belief in himself. Moreover, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, Afif is unlike many other GCC players. He’s not just taken the chance to play in Europe at such a young age but he has built the start of his career based on it.
If there’s one thing that needs improvement, it is probably the character of the player. Although confident and cheerful on and off the pitch, Afif had a tendency to show off when he was younger. His performances may not necessarily be selfish but the way he conduced himself on the pitch showed exactly why he was pipped to the captaincy by Ahmed Moein. That aspect has slightly improved ever since his introduction to the Qatari senior national team.
On one hand, playing in Europe is always more beneficial than playing in the Middle East. But on the other hand, having little top flight experience is a potential disadvantage. The jump in quality from Eupen to Villarreal is something else completely. Superpowers Barcelona and Real Madrid are teams that Afif could possibly earn the chance to play against. There is a high chance he will be sent out on loan due to his lack of top-flight experience – but could time off the bench also be beneficial for him? Let’s see what head coach Marcelino has to think.
Villarreal have one of the better defensive and compact shapes in European football and the only time Afif has really been tested in a compact, restricted shape is during those moments of retreat in Qatar’s shape.
While Afif does score goals, he could score much more if he polished his final touch. Afif’s movement is sometimes too complex to the extent that both him and his direct opponent will fall to the ground, not allowing him to finish off his moves often. At a higher level that could be read easily in turn seeing him end a season with only a couple of goals to his name.
What do others think?
Qatari football expert and Ahdaaf writer Ahmed Hashim said the following about Afif’s first outing in a Villarreall shirt: “Having watched parts of both friendly appearances earlier this week, I’d say that he looks confident; with a look on his face that says: Bring it on. I saw how his blistering pace could wreak havoc among defenders in Spain when he latched on to the ball in his own half and sped ahead against Nastic de Tarragona. Leaving the last defender in his wake, he was only stopped by a tackle from behind that saw the defender get sent off. It was an inkling of what Akram could offer.
“That said, I have yet to see if he features in the manager’s plans. There are rumours that he could be sent on loan. I hope not.”
Sandals4Goalpost and Ahdaaf writer Tom Danicek: “I’d say what fills me with optimism regarding Akram Afif’s stint in LaLiga is not only his super-quick thinking and creative mind, but perhaps above all the fact he hasn’t been pampered the way other Middle Eastern stars such as both Abdulrahmans have. He has no history of receiving fat paychecks, he’s got proper footballing education provided – among others – by Spanish coaches, and has even picked up a bit of the language. Also, he’s naturally cheeky, can receive as well as distribute “punches”, and while his constant arguing with referees needs to be eradicated, this is for me another aspect of his assertiveness that should help him flourish in a more competitive environment.”
We’re hoping Akram Afif stays at Villarreal and racking up some time off the bench and earn his way up the substitutes bench. Are we finally going to see the beginning of Qatari football having an effect on European football, on a consistent basis?