Akram Afif: Qatar's Asian Cup hero says he would 'love' to play in Europe

Playmaker scored a hat-trick of penalties in Saturday's 3-1 win over Jordan as Qatar retained their Asian Cup title

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates scoring his second goal against Jordan in Saturday's Asian Cup final at Lusail Stadium, Qatar. Getty
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Akram Afif lit up the Asian Cup final on Saturday, converting a hat-trick of penalties against Jordan to secure back-to-back continental titles for Qatar.

The playmaker is well known to football fans in Asia and has only enhanced his reputation with his performances in Qatar where he finished as top scorer with eight goals.

Afif's star showing on home soil is only likely to reignite talk of a move to Europe, where the 27-year-old previously plied his trade, in Belgium and Spain, with modest success.

Afif's star showing

Afif netted three penalties in the 3-1 victory over Jordan, and he bagged a treble of individual awards: player of the match, most valuable player of the tournament, and top scorer.

He was also one of Qatar's best players as they won the Asian Cup held in the UAE in 2019, registering a tournament record 10 assists.

Opposition coaches who have faced him have praised his skills, with Tajikistan's Petar Segrt saying it was only a question of time and whether the Qatar forward wanted to return to Europe.

Afif scored three times in the group stage including a double against Lebanon to kick-start the tournament on January 12.

A penalty against Palestine secured Qatar a 2-1 win in the last 16 and Afif also scored in the 3-2 penalty shoot-out win over Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals.

A fine individual goal gave Qatar the lead as they came from behind to beat Iran 3-2 in the semi-finals before Afif stole the show in the final, scoring the first treble of the tournament and writing his name in the record books as the only player to have scored three penalties in an Asian Cup final.

Previous record in Europe

Since leading Qatar to the 2019 title with a tournament record 10 assists, Afif has become one of Asia's most-feared players.

At the start of this tournament, he said he had dreams of returning to Europe having previously played for Eupen in the Belgian Pro League, scoring eight goals in 26 appearances.

He later became the first Qatari player to be signed by a La Liga club when he moved to Villarreal in 2016. He was loaned out to Sporting Gijon, making 11 appearances mainly from the bench, before returning to Eupen on a one-year loan in July 2017. A solitary goal in 16 appearances prompted a move to Al Sadd in January 2018, where Afif has flourished, winning three Qatar Stars League titles, two Emir and Qatar Cups, the Sheikh Jassim Cup and the Qatar Stars Cup.

"I talked about becoming a professional player [in Europe], but it's not me who decides. My wife also has to make the decision for me. It's not easy to leave the club and country," Afif told reporters after the final.

But he added: "I'd love to become a professional player [in Europe] ... I'd say I would love to go."

For now, he will enjoy helping Qatar become only the fifth country to successfully defend their Asian Cup crown.

"We're happy and we will enjoy until the next Asian Cup. Then we'll see what happens," he added.

Asian Cup champions Qatar parade trophy to delight fans

Asian Cup champions Qatar parade trophy to delight fans

Gulf players' track record in Europe

While many players from Arab countries and the Mena region have starred in Europe, only one player from the Gulf can really be considered a success.

Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi played 10 games for Bolton Wanderers between 2006-2011, including a standout performance against German giants Bayern Munich in the Uefa Cup.

He moved to Wigan Athletic on a permanent basis in 2011, making over 100 appearances for the Latics, collecting an FA Cup winners' medal in 2013.

Al Habsi would also go on to play for Brighton & Hove Albion and Reading in England's second tier and ended his career as back-up at West Bromwich Albion before retiring in 2020.

UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman was long touted to make the move to Europe, with Manchester City and clubs from Spain and Portugal credited with an interest.

No move ever materialised though, with Abdulrahman instead remaining in the Emirates plying his trade for Al Ain, Al Jazira, Shabab Al Ahli as well as a brief spell in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal.

Now 32, Abdulrahman plays his club football with Dubai club Al Wasl.

Updated: February 11, 2024, 9:12 AM