AFC Asian Cup 2019: Almoez Ali and Akram Afif – Qatar’s hopes for 2022 World Cup

Asian Cup 2019 DPR Korea Almoez Ali Akram Afif Qatar

Qatar’s emphatic 6-0 win over DPR Korea in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 was another step in the right direction for Spanish coach Felix Sanchez’s young guns as they ready themselves for the biggest sporting event on the planet come 2022. 

And it wasn’t just the win, but the manner in which it was achieved that gives plenty of promise for Qatar who have been racing against the clock to bring together a group of players who could represent the nation and hold their own when the FIFA World Cup visits the peninsula in four years’ time.

After a yet another failed experiment with Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati, Qatar had handed over the reins of the senior national team to Spaniard Felix in July 2017. Felix, a Barcelona youth coach who had moved to Qatar to take up a coaching job at the ambitious Aspire Academy back in 2006, knew Qatari football inside out.

Having worked at Aspire, that produces the bulk of Qatar’s young talent, till 2013 and with Qatar’s youth national teams since, Felix ticked all the boxes the Qatar Football Association were looking for — a coach who could rebuild the national team with a new set of players for the 2022 World Cup after their dreams of making it to Russia in 2018 came to an abrupt end.

And Felix has done an impressive job so far brining down the side’s average age considerably and as asked of him burning together an exciting group of players who could make Qatar proud at the 2022 World Cup. They are, definitely, not the finished product yet, but the signs from the North Korea prove they definitely are on their way.

The player who grabbed the headlines in the 6-0 thrashing of the 2010 World Cup participants was Almoez Ali — the 22-year-old who is one of the seven players in Qatar’s 23-member Asian Cup 2019 squad to have been part of the Qatar U-19s when they won the AFC U-19 Championship held in Myanmar in 2014.

The Doha-born youngster with Sudanese roots put four goals past a hapless North Korean defence taking his tally in the continental championship to five goals from two matches and making himself an early contender for the Golden Boot award of the Asian Cup 2019.

The Al-Duhail striker was one of the key stars of that victorious Qatar U-19 side and also was the top scorer in the more recent AFC U-23 Championship held in China last year. And Sunday’s performance in the biggest stage in Asian football proves that he is already well-equipped to take on superior oppositions — all at just the age of 22.

While Almoez grabbed all the eyeballs for his four well-taken goals, another 22-year-old provided the same number of assists for his teammates in the same match. Akram Afif, the Villarreal winger on loan at Al Sadd, was a menacing presence for the DPR Korea defence on that left flank.

Afif has already brushed shoulders against some of the world’s elites during his spells in Europe. The left-winger became the first Qatari to join a La Liga club when he signed on the dotted lines for Villarreal in 2016. The Yellow Submarine loaned him out to Gijon that season where he made nine appearances in the Spanish top division.

Akram spent the 2017-18 season at Belgian side Eupen before returning to Al Sadd on loan this year where he has scored 14 goals from 17 matches. With performances like that in the Asian Cup, it could be just a matter of time before Afif generates more interest from European clubs!

The Almoez-Afif duo are definitely poised to play a big role when Qatar take on the who’s who of world football in their debut World Cup appearance in 2022. But they are not the only youngsters who could make that squad. Qatar’s centre-back pairing of Tarek Salman and Bassam Al-Rawi are yet to concede a goal in the tournament and they have only just turned 21!

Assim Madibo, an N’Golo Kante-esque midfilder who is known for his industry and ball-winning ability also is a major cog in Felix’s well-oiled engine and the diminutive mideo was once again at the top of his game against North Korea. Meanwhile, Ahmed Moein, the 2015 Asian Young Footballer of the Year, could also have starred had he not suffered a late injury.

Qatar have the fourth-youngest squad in the tournament with an average age of 24.87 years — only behind AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 champions Vietnam, former winners Iraq and Stephen Constantine’s India. But while most of the teams see the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates as their ultimate stage, it is just one stepping stone for this young Qatari side.

“The group of players that played in the AFC U-19 Championship some years ago are in the first team now and it’s a group of – in my point of view – very talented players with the qualities to compete and play in Asia, and of course we want to be here to try to compete against everyone,” coach Felix recently said about his squad.

As they continue to prepare in the best possible way for the 2022 World Cup,  Qatar will next head to South America to play in the 2019 Copa America in June where they could play the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia as one of the two invited teams — the other being Japan. But for now, the Maroons have their own continental championship to take care of.