First Qatar star in La Liga targets World Cup success

Akram Afif is now a central player for Jose Daniel Carreno's side, which is aiming to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia

Ross Dunbar

Published: Updated:

It was a matter of when, not if, but last week Akram Afif's highly-anticipated return to Spanish football was finally confirmed. The prodigiously talented 19-year-old attacker could become the first Qatari to play in La Liga, signing a four-year-deal with Villarreal. Afif has already trained in Spain after short term spells at Villarreal and Sevilla.

This year's Europa League semi-finalists finished fourth in the Spanish top-flight and will compete in the Champions League qualifiers next season. If Afif features, he would be the first Qatar national to play in Europe's premier club competition. “I'm very happy to sign for Villarreal, they are a big team and one of the best teams in Spain,” he said in an interview with Qatar's governing body.

“I hope I can learn a lot of things in the next years from the players and the coaches with the club. I know some of the players in the team and the city is very nice so I hope that I can do something for the team. Villarreal will play the Champions League next season so we’ll try to be a difficult team to beat in La Liga and go as far as we can in all competitions. I haven’t started training yet at Villarreal, but when I do I want to play for the first team and I hope to compete for a place.”

While there's a perception cemented in European media, that Qatar will simply naturalise foreign players ahead of the 2022 World Cup, Afif is busting those myths. But the forward, comfortable on the left or right, who plays for Belgian side S.V. Eupen – the club is tied as a development club to the Aspire network – has been nurtured in a Spanish-inspired football culture.

Through the nascent connections between Spain and Qatar, Afif and his compatriots are trained by coaches educated in the country of the European champions. Qatar's U23 and U20 teams are coached by Felix Sanchez, while Oscar Fernandez controls the U17 group. The Aspire Academy in Doha, a multi-billion dollar sports complex assembling the best knowledge and talent possible, has a notable Spanish influence, especially in football.

With Afif starring, Qatar's youth teams under Sanchez have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent seasons. The style of football is influenced by Spain, a possession-based game which utilises combination play and skilful attackers. In his trips back to Doha to join his national team colleagues, Afif has maximised the opportunity to learn from arguably Barcelona's most iconic player of the generation.

Xavi Hernandez signed for Al-Sadd in 2015 – Afif's former club, which is connected to the Aspire Academy – and the youngster admitted that he has picked the brains of the Barca legend about a possible move to Spain.

“Xavi is a big player and he gives me advice about how I can improve," said the teenager. "Everyone knows that Xavi is one of the best players in the world. I am inspired by a lot of players from the Spanish league, Messi, Cristiano, Neymar, Iniesta, I like Denis Suarez at Villarreal, and they also have some of the best defenders in the world like Sergio Ramos.”

Dreaming big for Qatar 2022

Everything Afif has touched in the dark red shirt of his national team turns to gold. He has taken several international tournaments by storm, adding to his reputation. At the age of 17, he was arguably Qatar's most impressive performer at the U19 Asian Championships in 2014. In the final, Afif scored the winner for Sanchez's side to beat North Korea.

A year later, Afif scored a consolation goal at the FIFA U20 World Cup as Qatar dropped out early, losing all three of their group stage matches. Although he became a full international in September 2015, the Eupen attacker starred at the U23 Asian Championships, scoring one goal en route to a fourth-placed finish for host country Qatar who finished behind established East Asian powerhouses like Japan and South Korea.

Afif is now a central player for Jose Daniel Carreno's side, which is aiming to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Already navigating one round of qualifying, Qatar will battle in a group section with Uzbekistan, China, Iran and South Korea for two automatic spots at the World Cup, or an intercontinental play-off.

"I dream of playing for Qatar in the World Cup in 2022,” he said. “I think we will have a good team for Qatar 2022, our youth team is readying for the Asian Cup in October and they have a good team, we also won the last Asian Cup in Myanmar. We have a good young generation developing. Our target in the national team is that we want to play in the World Cup in Russia in 2018.”