Doha, Qatar: Qatar were the dominant force on the Asian football scene in 2019, the year they won their maiden Asian Cup. Thanks to impressive results at the continental championship and in FIFA World Cup qualifiers, as well as their participation in the Copa America, Al Annabi (the Maroons) were logically the highest climbers in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in 2019.
Qatar’s achievements were the result of hard work and long-term planning, which finally paid dividends last year. This unprecedented success came as no surprise, given the excellent performances at both team and individual level. Indeed, Qatari players claimed the individual awards at last year’s Asian Cup, and one of their brightest stars, Akram Afif, was named AFC Player of the Year.
As the country continues its remarkable preparations to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, it appears the national team is determined to do the same and ensure admirable results at the global showpiece.
FIFA.com sat down recently with Akram Afif, who talked about the team’s achievements and his player of the year award, among other things.
2019 was a historic year for you. You became Asian champion, claimed the continent’s best player award and won the Qatari league. How would you sum up what you achieved?
In one word, fantastic. It was the best thing that happened to me since I started my career. It’s rare for a footballer to achieve all that in one year, but thank God I had lots of good things happen in 2019. Winning the Asian title with Qatar could have been enough for my team-mates and I for years, but this isn’t the end for us, just the beginning. It’s a great honour to see your country's flag flying highest, but it was the fruit of a lot of hard work, persistence and goal-setting.
What did it mean to be named the best player in Asia?
It's a huge honour for any player to receive this award. I think it was the product of years of hard work as well as intense focus during training and matches. Credit goes to my family and team-mates with club and country, and to all who oversee the development of Qatari players. It felt great to get the news at our training camp for the Gulf Cup, and then I had moments of joy and pride when I received the actual award in Doha surrounded by people who love me. This award will motivate me to do even more.
Many doubted Qatar would do well in the Asian Cup, but the team were up for the challenge, as you predicted in an interview with us before heading to the UAE. How do you explain what you achieved there?
Yes, we knew that [we weren’t tipped to do well], and that motivated us to rise to the occasion and have a good tournament. We had a strong desire to prove to everyone that Qatar could achieve what some considered impossible. We had some accomplishments in the past, such as winning the Gulf Cup and the AFC U-19 Championship in addition to our appearances at the [U-20] World Cup, but the motivation to win an Asian title at senior level made us determined to defy all expectations.
What were the keys to winning the Asian title?
There were many reasons. In recent years, football projects and planning in Qatar have adopted a systematic approach. Most national team players trained in the Aspire Academy, where they were given strong foundations. We then embarked on a long development programme by joining the national youth teams. We went through many stages and can say that we were ahead of our time. On the field, we focus on modern football that favours collective play, and we possess several things that made this possible. Experience, strength and skill coupled with the technical and tactical guidance of coach [Felix] Sanchez. When you possess all these elements, you are able to succeed and get good results. Thank God we realised our dream by becoming Asian champions.
Which matches were the most difficult on your journey to that historic title?
All the games had varying degrees of difficulty, but we dealt with each match very seriously and took them one at a time. Concentration levels were very high. I have to admit that playing the final had a special meaning, because it’s the match that separates you from title and it pitted us against Japan, who have had more experience in that kind of situation. However, as everyone saw, we played with the same confidence. Our aim was to surprise them, and we succeeded in that. We controlled the game and, thanks to the urgency and passion we demonstrated, were confident the result would go our way. For me, scoring the third goal was a personal reward as that sealed it for us and ended Japan’s hopes of making a comeback.
How did you feel after the final whistle?
What a historic moment! We felt real pride. We knew that our fans in Qatar were watching us as they weren’t able to come to support us in the stadium, Therefore, our celebrations on the pitch after lifting the trophy didn’t feel complete until we returned to Doha. The reception at the airport by His Highness the Emir was our biggest reward. We were thrilled because he was very proud of our having raised Qatar’s flag at one of the biggest football events. The public reception in the streets of Qatar was also spontaneous and wonderful.
Last year, you also took part in the Copa America in Brazil. What were the main benefits of that?
As you know, we’ll host the next edition of the World Cup, so football officials are keen to help us make the best preparation possible. I believe that facing South American teams and playing in such a competition was good on the whole, even if we didn’t have good results. We had a friendly with Brazil before the tournament, then played Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay. They were very good experiences, as we encountered different styles in terms of speed, strength and skill.
What are you hoping to gain from your second appearance at that tournament next year?
We learned a lot from our first participation, and now we have a full year to prepare for the next tournament. I hope we can gain further benefits, but our goal is to have good results at it. Given that the tournament format has changed, I think we have a better opportunity to go beyond the group stage. We’ll do all we can to make the quarter-finals and then try to go even further.
At the end of the year, you came close to winning the AFC Champions League and also participated in the FIFA Club World Cup?
Al Sadd are a club that always target trophies. We were looking to win the AFC Champions League, but minor details prevented us from reaching the final. However, we proved we can do well in the most difficult circumstances. We took part in the Club World Cup in Doha, which was a good experience overall and taught us a lot. In different circumstances we might have had better results, but that’s football. All teams go through difficult times, and we had ours at that tournament.
You are one of a few Qatari players who has professional stints in Europe. How did this exposure help you improve as a player, and are you looking for new experiences?
The professional experiences we’ve had abroad were also part of an organised football development plan. I had the opportunity early in my career, and it helped me and the rest of my team-mates who had similar overseas experiences. We benefited technically and mentally. In the near future, I’ll be looking for better and longer periods abroad in order to continue my development and return to serve the national team in the eagerly awaited World Cup.