Inspirational Asian Cup Victory Points the Way to 2022
Qatari football is enjoying a golden spell, with the whole country still in ecstasy over the national team’s superb success at the Asian Cup. Meanwhile, Aspire Academy’s journey deep into the tournament at Al Kass 2019 has provided further evidence of the nation’s footballing progress and prowess. Aspire International, a team put together as part of the Aspire Football Dreams project, twice won this trophy and Aspire Academy would love to follow in their footsteps. They did reach the final two years ago but found Real Madrid too strong and succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.
Aspire Academy have played at all eight editions of the Al Kass International Cup. In 2014, one of their players was a certain Akram Afif, now one of the country’s leading players and a big influence in Qatar’s Asian Cup success, where he produced an amazing 10 assists during the tournament. If any of the current Aspire Academy squad needs inspiration or motivation to fulfill their potential, they should look no further than Afif, who also stars for Al Sadd in the QNB Qatar Stars League. There are nearly four years until the World Cup takes place in Qatar, so there is still time for any of the current Academy squad to feature in 2022. Afif’s career has been hugely influenced by Felix Sanchez, the manager who guided Qatar to their greatest ever triumph. The
Spaniard began his coaching career guiding the youth team at Spanish giants Barcelona, his home city, before moving to Qatar, where his coaching career has mirrored Afif’s playing career. Beginning at Aspire and then joining the Qatar Under-19 team, Sanchez progressed to the Under 20s, the Under 23s and finally the senior team. The victorious coach returned to Aspire Zone this week to watch the future generation - players who dream of starring at the World Cup in 2022.
Sanchez recalls with a smile: “It was not very long ago that I was on this pitch when I was coaching the Aspire team participating in the Al Kass International Cup. Many of the players I had back then went on to win the Asian Cup recently. This shows that the philosophy behind Aspire Academy is working.” Aspire played a huge role in Qatar’s Asian Cup success, with seven of the starting line-up that defeated Japan in the final being graduates of the academy, and a further two making substitute appearances. Goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb, who conceded just one goal all tournament, and Almoez Ali – who broke the Asian Cup goalscoring record – learned their trade at Aspire.
Although Aspire played an integral role in Qatar’s success, only Afif and Yousef Hassan of the squad that tasted success in the UAE have played in the Al Kass tournament. Hassan, who plays for Al Gharafa in the QNB Stars League, began as a defender but was converted to a goalkeeper while at Aspire Academy, and along with Afif he went on loan to Qatari-owned Belgian side KAS Eupen for the 2015-16 season.
As well as Afif and Hassan, the Al Kass International Cup has played host to a number of players who have gone on to bigger and better things. PSG, who are ever-presents at Al Kass, are also the most successful team in the tournament’s history, and their team that edged out Juventus on penalties in the inaugural competition featured the likes of Kingsley Coman, Moussa Dembele and Adrian Rabiot. Lightning-quick Coman, now with Bayern Munich, twice played at Al Kass and reached the final on both occasions, although PSG were edged out by Brazilians Fluminense in 2013.
Highly rated midfielder Rabiot is still with PSG, and is currently rumoured to be on the radar of Manchester United. Former French Under 21 international Dembele is now back plying his trade in his homeland with Lyon following a hugely successful spell with Scottish champions Celtic.
Tough-tackling defender Presnel Kimpembe was with Coman in the PSG side that finished runners-up at Al Kass in 2013 and he has
carved out a decent career since, being part of the victorious French squad at the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia. Another Al Kass winner to become a regular first-team player is Brazilian left-back Leo Pele. Within a year of winning the tournament with Fluminense he was playing first-team football, and he remained with the club until the end of 2018 when he joined Sao Paulo for $3 US million.
Brazilian central defender Marlon played more than 50 times for the first team after helping Fluminense to victory and his form earned a move to Barcelona, but he is now in Italy’s Seria A where he is enjoying his first season with Sassuolo. Left-sided Brazilian Kenedy was another in that successful Fluminense side and he showed plenty of potential when on loan at Newcastle United last season, but the Chelsea player has endured a disappointing campaign this season, having extended his temporary spell with Rafa Benitez’s side. Moroccan international right-back Achraf reached the final in 2014 and progressed into Real Madrid’s first team where he made nine appearances last season, although he is currently earning more first-team opportunities in the Bundesliga while on loan to Dortmund.
Playing alongside Achraf in the Dortmund back four these days is another player who appeared at Al Kass in the same year as his current team-mate - Dan-Axel Zagadou. PSG failed to reach the semi-finals in 2014 but Zagadou has enjoyed a progressive career since and has played for France at several levels.
Spanish international Munir El Hadadi of Sevilla played at the first Al Kass in the first tournament, in the colours of his first club Barcelona. Sandro Ramirez, currently on loan at Real Sociedad from English Premier League side Everton, was also in the Barca side that year, but the Catalans failed to impress. Marcos Llorente recently scored his first goal for the first team at Barca’s great rivals Real Madrid, nearly six years after appearing at Al Kass for Los Blancos. Spanish Under 20 international Oscar Rodriguez is another to join the Real first team squad after playing at Al Kass, and the talented midfielder stood out from the rest with his performances at Aspire in 2015. Two of Zinedine Zidane’s sons, Enzo and Luca, also featured for Real at Al Kass, the latter being skipper of the side that lost to Aspire Football Dreams in the 2015 final.
No Italian side has ever won the tournament, but Milan finished third in 2014 when Patrick Cutrone stood out for the Rossoneri. At Al Kass he was described as “an intelligent player with a great technique,” and the striker has lived up to that praise by becoming a senior Italian international.
Brazilian’s Sao Paulo were runners-up in 2015, beaten on penalties by PSG, and Eder Militao found himself making his first-team debut shortly afterwards. He joined Portuguese side FC Porto last year and made his Brazilian international debut shortly afterwards. English clubs have made a few appearances at Al Kass over the years and Jordon Ibe went on to play more than 40 times for Liverpool’s first team before joining fellow English Premier League side Bournemouth for a club record fee.
Brahim Diaz played for Manchester City in 2014, shortly after joining from Malaga, and he is now back in La Liga after joining Real Madrid, where his dribbling skills are sure to be a hit at the Bernabeu. A current youngster from Real – Eidur Godjohnsen’s son Andri – could be in with a chance of being in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup in the colors of Iceland, but which other great talents might be back playing at the nearby Khalifa International Stadium? Spartak’s Moscow’s five-goal star Ilya Golyatov or assist king Aslan Mutaliev are promising young Russians; Roma’s goalscoring midfielder Edorado Bove has impressed; or maybe one of the Glasgow Rangers players who have excelled could be back in Doha in 2022, such as midfielder Kai Kennedy – who is already involved with the first team at Ibrox – or Nathan Young-Coombes, who has made an instant impression since joining from Chelsea. Sanchez would love to see some of the Aspire players he has watched this week appear at the World Cup, saying: “Aspire is an amazing and unique programme. Players went through a process to be a part of the Asian Cup squad, which shows it is producing results. It can be a model for many academies. We’ve been very busy lately but I was keen to come to Al Kass. I still try to find time to watch league matches, and I enjoyed coming back to watch the tournament.”