- Qatar forward Akram Afif talks about the upcoming 2019 AFC Asian Cup
- 22-year-old made his name at the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship
- Afif: "We're excited to host 2022 World Cup and my goal is to take part"
For the people of Qatar, December was a special month. To begin with, the countdown to the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ began in earnest, with four years to go before the nation hosts the global showcase. That coincided with the unveiling of the design for Lusail Stadium, a proposed venue for the tournament's Opening Match and Final. And Qatar also celebrated its National Day on 18 December – the date when the 2022 World Cup will reach its climax.
Now the country's football fans have switched their focus to the national team as they prepare for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The upcoming tournament could play a key role in shaping Qatar's squad for the 2022 World Cup, which means a number of key players will be under the spotlight.
Chief among them is Akram Afif. The talented forward, who turned 22 in November, is the name on everybody's lips, and not only because he is the first Qatari to have appeared in Spain's La Liga. He also helped Qatar clinch the Asian U-19 title in 2014 and book their place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup the following year. More recently, Afif turned heads with Al Sadd in the AFC Champions League last term and has impressed in the domestic league this season.
All eyes will be on Afif once again as Al-Annabi (the Maroons) target glory at the Asian Cup. We caught up with him ahead of Asia's continental finals in United Arab Emirates.
FIFA.com: The 2019 AFC Asian Cup is almost ready for kick-off. How do you rate Qatar's chances in the competition?
Akram Afif: Everyone knows how difficult these tournaments are. Every team will try to win the title. We're not short of enthusiasm and the desire to compete fiercely. We want to go as far as possible. Our preparations have been more than excellent. We've played a number of impressive games against teams with various playing styles in the past few months. That's helped us build our experience, improve our physical fitness and understanding, and test a lot of tactical plans. I believe we're ready to translate all that on to the pitch.
You have been drawn in Group E with Lebanon, Korea DPR and Saudi Arabia. How do you expect those games to unfold?
None of those are easy teams since they've all made it to the finals. Our first game will be against Lebanon and usually the opening matches are tough as each side is trying to avoid defeat. But we'll insist on going for all three points because that's the key to further progress. In the second game, we'll be up against Korea DPR, a team with an east-Asian football style and we have an idea about how to play against them. The third game will be against Saudi Arabia, who featured at the World Cup last summer and acquired considerable experience. The Saudi players have also developed their skills further in the domestic league this season. We'll take each game as it comes and play the 90 minutes of every match with a view to qualifying. Then we'll see what we do in the subsequent rounds.
This will be your first major tournament with the senior national team. What are your personal ambitions?
I'm definitely excited about wearing the Qatar shirt and experiencing this great honour. From day one, I dreamed about taking part in tournaments like this. I remember being a supporter of the team during the 2011 finals in Qatar. Eight years later, my dream is coming true. I hope I can meet the expectations of the fans and give them the happiness they deserve. I'm not interested in personal accolades. I'm completely focused on serving my team so we can all achieve our ultimate goal of raising Qatar's football profile.
You have impressed this season with both the national team and Al Sadd. Do you feel any personal pressure and do you expect the other teams to single you out?
I've reached this level thanks to hard work and perseverance with both club and national team. But the credit mainly goes to the support of my team-mates and how we've implemented the coach's instructions, as well as our teamwork and belief that the team must always come first. So, personally, I don't fear pressure, and if there's pressure I'll turn it into a positive. If I find myself under man-to-man pressure, that won't be a big deal as I'm not the only player in the team. My team-mates are capable of compensating for that in their own positions. We know the coach has effective solutions to all these tactical issues. I'm fully convinced that no single player in the world can do the job of a whole team. Football is a game of teamwork.
You shone with the youth team and won the U-19 Asian title. How does that victory motivate you and the rest of the team?
That tournament is certainly unforgettable. As a side, we outperformed everyone. We were armed with a spirit of teamwork, and our primary goal was to put Qatar on the continental football map and qualify for the U-20 World Cup. After achieving that, we focused on clinching the title. I'll never forget the day of the final, when the youth team won its first trophy. What makes me especially proud is that I scored the winner against Korea DPR. I hope I'll get to have the same experience with my team-mates in the senior side. With resolve and determination, we can achieve that.
You made history when you became the first Qatari to play in La Liga. How would you describe that experience?
After the U-20 World Cup in 2015, I received an offer from Eupen in Belgium. I had the ambition of playing in Europe because that's the normal route for development. I think I did well there, scoring eight goals in 26 appearances. The following season, I received an offer from Villarreal in Spain. I couldn't have turned down that opportunity. I moved there and started a new experience in my career. Everyone knows what La Liga means. For me, every training session there was a new lesson. I was then loaned to Sporting Gijon, and I had a chance to feature in games. I was then loaned to Eupen again last season and after that, I received an offer from Al Sadd. I'm happy with what I'm doing here this season. I hope I'll be able to help the club regain the league title and other trophies, especially after we missed out on the Champions League title. I'm still a Villarreal player, and I'll see how things develop at the end of the season.
The national team is preparing for the 2022 World Cup. How do you see the next stage developing?
We're all very enthusiastic, and everyone wants to have the honour of playing in this historic World Cup for the Qataris and every Arab. We know that the Qatari Football Association will organise a series of training camps and international games over the next four years to raise our level so that we'll be fully ready. In the summer, we'll participate in the 2019 Copa America. That'll certainly be an exciting experience. Playing against historic teams and on Brazilian pitches will give us global experience, and from that point we'll build for the future.