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Akram Afif lights up the Asian Cup

NEW YORK (AP) – With his flowing curls and thrilling attacking play, it was no surprise that Akram Afif was likened to Liverpool star Mo Salah at the Asian Cup.

Over the space of a month the Qatar forward lit up the tournament. With eight goals, including a hat trick in the 3-1 win over Jordan in the final, he was the leading scorer and most valuable player as his team won back-to-back titles.

But once the celebrations are over, Afif will return to Al Sadd in Qatar, rather than a team from one of Europe’s top leagues.

In reality, he is a long way off the quality of Salah — one of the world’s top players. But based on his performances at the Asian Cup, it is hard to imagine Afif couldn’t make a career for himself outside of his homeland, even if not at one of Europe’s leading clubs.

Is it simply the case that in an age when scouting networks have never been more extensive, Afif has slipped through the net?

Not quite.

After all, he did start his career as a youth player with Villarreal and had spells in Spain and Belgium before returning to his homeland.

That move doesn’t seem to have stopped him from developing his game.

He outperformed the likes of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and PSG forward Lee Kang-in at the Asian Cup, and, unsurprisingly, the question of whether he would look to try again in Europe was a consistent theme during Qatar’s run to the title.

“It’s not me who has to decide, other parties have to decide,” Afif said after the final. “There are so many factors. I’d love to become a professional (in Europe). If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

As a whole the Asian showcased the talent that lies outside of elite club soccer in Europe. Iraq’s Aymen Hussein was the second highest scorer.

Of the two finalists, only one player was based in Europe — Jordan’s Mousa Tamari, who plays for Montpellier in France.

It points to the possibility that there is talent in parts of Asia that remains largely untapped in terms of scouting from Europe.

That hasn’t harmed Qatar at the last two editions of the Asian Cup. Having a squad made up of home-based players likely aided Spanish coach Márquez López, who was only hired in December.

Despite coaching upheaval, with López stepping over from Qatari team Al Wakrah to succeed Carlos Queiroz in the lead up to the tournament, the tight cohesion of the team was clear from the start.

“I have been working in Qatar and I know the players well. It was easy to work with them and they effectively implemented our ideas on the field,” he said.

Afif had also been a key figure in Qatar’s Asian Cup triumph in 2019, but that didn’t pave the way for a high profile move.

It may be a different story this time around.

Qatar’s Akram Afif celebrates after scoring a goal during the Asian Cup final soccer match between Qatar and Jordan at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday. PHOTO: AP