The 2016 AFC U-23 Championship: Where it all began for Qatar’s golden generation

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship and how it might have been the start of Qatar’s current golden generation.

11 months ago, new champions of Asia were crowned as Qatar emerged triumphant at AFC Asian Cup 2019.

In what proved to be an outstanding tournament for a side whose best previous display was a couple of quarter-final appearances in 2000 and 2011, the Qataris swept aside all who stood in their way and ushered in a new era of superstars.

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Qatar stars celebrate at full time whistle

Almoez Ali was the obvious standout with a record-breaking nine goals as he claimed both the Top Scorer and Best Player awards at the tournament, while partner-in-crime Akram Afif weighed in with an all-time high of ten assists and was recognised at the end of the year with the AFC Asian Footballer of the Year prize.

Meanwhile, left-back Abdelkarim Hassan – the 2018 Asian Footballer of the Year – further cemented his status as one of the continent’s best players, while the likes of Bassam Al-Rawi and Assim Madibo emerged from the tournament with enhanced reputations.

Lest it be mistaken that this crop of outstanding talents has been a result of good fortune, youth development has been high on the agenda in Qatar for over the past decade – since the founding of Aspire Academy, an independent government-funded centre that counts Almoez, Akram and Bassam among their alumni to name but a few.

Abdelkarim Hassan scored four goals at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship from left-back.

The first sign that Qatar’s investment would bear fruit came in 2014 when they won the AFC U-19 Championship in Myanmar, with a squad that largely comprised of youngsters who had spent time learning their craft at Aspire Academy.

But it was two years later at the second edition of the AFC U-23 Championship where the pieces really started to fall into place for the Maroons on home soil.

Although they ultimately had to settle for a fourth-place finish at the tournament, this crop of prospects under Felix Sanchez Bas – the same man who would go on to guide them to senior success in 2019 – consisted of then 19-year-olds Akram, Almoez and Assim and an 18-year-old Bassam, who were all exposed to opponents up to five years their senior.

Akram Afif and Almoez Ali are now two of Asian football’s hottest properties.

In fact, 11 members from the squad that competed at the 2016 AFC U-23s would also be part of the team which became Asian champions just three years later.

It is scary to think that these players are only just into their twenties and are likely to get even better, but Qatar are certainly not willing to rest on their laurels.

Last year’s Asian Cup-winning side saw the inclusion of 11 players aged 22 or younger including teenager Khaled Mohammed, who may have been left on the bench but will have learnt plenty from the experience.

Qatar’s success at senior level further highlights the important role played by tournaments such as the AFC U-23 Championship, and the next one gets underway on January 8.

Following their recent rise, the Qataris should head into the tournament as one of the favourites and will be able to call upon senior stalwarts like Bassam and Tarek Salman, who remain young enough to be eligible, as well as fresher faces such as Khaled, Abdelrahman Mostafa and Yusuf Abdurisag.

As they have proven previously, winning the main prize on offer at the AFC U-23s does not have to be the be all and end all, as the tournament still remains a platform for the continent’s brightest prospects to go on and accomplish greater things like success at the Asian Cup.

But given all they have accomplished in the past 12 months and with the opportunity to shine further on a bigger stage – with 2020 Olympic Games berths on offer – Qatar might just be setting their sights on going all the way and proving their current golden generation is not a one-off.