Qatar's Akram Afif chases La Liga dream, 2018 World Cup qualification
If Qatar's biggest football dream was to host the 2022 World Cup, then a close second is to qualify for the 2018 edition. And it could happen with the Qataris among the 12 countries in the final round, trying to take one of Asia's four automatic spots in Russia.
Finishing in the top two in a group containing South Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Syria will be difficult but not impossible for a team who easily won their group in the second round of qualification. National team coach Jose Daniel Carreno was satisfied with the draw but feels that to keep progressing in the long term, Qatar need to follow in the footsteps of South Korea and Japan.
"It is important for Qatar to have players going to Europe to play over there," Carreno told ESPN FC in April. "This is what the best teams in Asia do and something we have to follow."
It is starting to happen. Not only are Qatar the first country in West Asia to host the tournament, they are the first in the region to make systematic efforts to help their young prospects head to the big leagues.
In 2014 and early 2015, six of the country's under-20 internationals were sent to Belgium to play for K.A.S Eupen, a club owned by Qatar's Aspire Zone Foundation. The team are being used, at least in part, as a professional starting point for graduates of the famous Aspire Academy.
Akram Afif impressed in the German-speaking southeastern corner of Belgium and last week signed for Villarreal. Already an international -- his father was a Tanzanian player of Yemeni descent whose ended up in the Middle East -- the 19-year-old is hoping to become the first Qatari to play in La Liga.
Afif is fast and loves nothing more than running at defenders. He is an exciting prospect in a region full of them. However, even if Afif played at the same Doha club as Xavi, represented Sevilla at a 2013 youth tournament and scored the winning goal in the final of the 2014 AFC U19 Championships, he faces a steep learning curve. Going to the team in fourth place in La Liga is an obvious step up and it remains to be seen how the youngster will cope.
Asian players have struggled to make any kind of impact in Spain, perhaps surprisingly so, given the technical ability of Japanese and South Korean players, the best-travelled of continental nations. East Asians have won league championships and cups in England, Germany and Italy. But La Liga, that most technical of competitions, has been a different matter.
Shunsuke Nakamura was the highest profile star to give it a try in 2009 but played just a handful of games with Espanyol. Lee Chun-soo headed west after the 2002 World Cup but is barely remembered by fans of either Real Sociedad or Numancia. Take Javad Nekounam, and the Iranian's six seasons with Osasuna out of the equation in modern times, and the cupboard is bare.
Apart from a few Iranians and Iraqis, West Asian teams have rarely sent players to Europe at all and Qatar's biggest export so far is Hussein Yasser. He played a cup game for Manchester City in 2005.
United Arab Emirates have produced plenty of talented players over the years. Ismail Matar, golden ball winner at the 2003 World Youth Championships (forerunner to the U20 World Cup) was the country's star until the recent golden generation, including Omar Abdulrahman, started to come through earlier this decade.
Matar told ESPN FC in January that he regrets not being given the chance to move to Europe. Al Wahda, his boyhood and current club, wanted him to stay and stay he did. "The problem was when I started, I won the best player at 2003 World Cup but UAE football still not professional," he said. "The mentality of the owner was to try and take the maximum from the player: 'I created this player'. You know what I mean?"
Matar recalls that European icons, such as Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Vieira and the De Boer twins, used to ask him why he wasn't in Europe. It wasn't his choice. The 33-year-old hopes that Abdulrahman can become a pioneer for the UAE. But, despite real interest from some of Europe's stellar clubs, the 24-year-old playmaker has showed no signs of leaving his comfort zone.
If the best talent from UAE and Saudi Arabian continue to show reluctance to leave, then Qatar are already stealing a march on their biggest regional rivals. It is could well be that Afif's progress will be closely watched, not only in Doha, but Dubai and Riyadh.
"It is a dream come true for me to be the first Qatari player in La Liga," Afif told Qatar media this week. "I hope I can be one of the best players in La Liga for Villarreal, and to help Qatar for the World Cup and represent the players from the Aspire Academy. I want to do something for Qatar."
Even if he doesn't make it at Villarreal or in Spain, it is surely only a matter of time before another Qatari does. When 2022 comes along, the nucleus of the national team could well be playing in Europe's biggest and best leagues.
That would be perfect for the country, especially if there is an appearance at the 2018 World Cup, too.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.