Qatar Asian Cup hopes resting firmly on shoulders of Akram Afif as they take on Iran

Playmaker has been one of the stars of the tournament as hosts set out to clinch place in final where Jordan await

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Five years after starring at an Asian Cup, Akram Afif is back at it again.

The Qatar playmaker has most probably been the player of the delayed 2023 tournament, driving the hosts and defending champions on home soil this past month, carrying the country’s hopes, offering the touches and the moments that suddenly make retaining the trophy feel wholly plausible.

Qatar are semi-finalists for a second successive Asian Cup; once again, Afif has been integral to their campaign.

Even this long since his defining moment on the continental stage, back at the 2019 event in the UAE, the Al Sadd creator maintains an almost singular ability to bend matches to his will.

Afif grabbed the tournament’s opening goal in last month’s curtain-raiser against Lebanon. In expertly dispatching a cool side-footed finish, the 2019 Asian Player of the Year, bridged a half-decade gap back to the previous edition, when he struck the last goal in the final as Qatar lifted the title for the first time.

His second against Lebanon, deep into injury time and rounding off the 3-0 win at Lusail Stadium, was even better. Picking up a loose ball, he drove past the opposition defence and swept home his shot.

In the next group match, against Tajikistan, Afif netted the only goal of the game, a sublime deft finish, to secure Qatar’s progression to the knockouts.

He was rested, initially, by manager “Tintin” Marquez Lopez for the dead rubber against China. Yet Afif’s introduction just after the hour not only enlivened those in attendance at the Khalifa International Stadium, but a contest drifting towards stalemate.

Afif played a decisive role in the deciding goal. He floated a pinpoint corner to captain Hassan Al Haydos who, stationed outside the Chinese penalty area, thudded a volley into the net. It ranks currently as the goal of the tournament. In all probability, it will remain there.

From there, Afif has continued to supply a heavy influence. In the last-16 encounter with Palestine, he assisted the first – another corner routine with Al Haydos – and then converted the penalty to settle the tie.

Then, in Saturday’s quarter-final shoot-out win against Uzbekistan, Afif stepped up first amid the gripping tension at Al Bayt Stadium for Qatar to scrape into the last four.

While not quite redemptive, it will go some way to helping the Gulf state banish memories of 14 months ago. It was at Al Bayt where they lost against Ecuador and the Netherlands at the 2022 World Cup, the twin defeats sandwiching another reverse to Senegal. All in all, it contributed to Qatar performing worse than any host in the history of the global finals.

To be fair to Afif, he was not alone in freezing on the grand stage, but as the team’s shining light, he failed to illuminate Qatar’s supposed moment in the sun.

This Asian Cup, however, has offered the opportunity to restore national pride. Perhaps galvanised by that dismal World Cup, or presumably free from the suffocating pressure that attached itself to it, Afif has embraced playing protagonist.

He is a player to excite and enthrall, whipping the crowd into a frenzy these past three weeks whenever in possession.

Most certainly, if Qatar are to continue to this weekend’s final, Afif will be central to any success. On Wednesday night, the home side face Iran, three-time champions, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha.

With Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi the tournament’s premier strike partnership, and the envy of most national teams in Asia, Iran are favourites to advance.

But, back at the scene of Senegal 3-1 Qatar in December 2022, Afif has the chance to heal old wounds. He will be supported, of course, by Al Haydos and Almoez Ali, two of the other stars in Qatar’s Asian Cup glory five years back.

Afif, though, will play the principal role. The sense is, however unfair it might seem when competing in a team sport, Qatar’s hopes rest firmly on his shoulders.

Updated: February 07, 2024, 7:06 AM