Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring a goal during the...

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, Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: AP/Hussein Sayed

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 was a youth player with Villarreal at the start of his career and had spells in Spain and Belgium before returning to his homeland.

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring his third goal during...

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring his third goal during the Asian Cup final soccer match between Qatar and Jordan at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

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."

The 27-year-old Afif was part of Qatar's Aspire Academy, which develops athletes. He joined Villarreal in 2016 and had loan spells with Sporting Gijon in Spain and Eupen in Belgium.

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal...

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the Asian Cup final soccer match between Qatar and Jordan at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. Credit: AP/Aijaz Rahi

He returned to his homeland to Al Sadd in 2018 and the following year won the Asian Cup with Qatar, providing 10 assists, a tournament record.

Those performances didn’t pave the way for a high profile move and he was part of Qatar's disappointing performance at the 2022 World Cup as the host nation was eliminated after three-straight losses in the group stage.

As a whole the Asian Cup 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.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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