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Homegrown hero upholds family values

EVERYTHING has changed for him, except maybe, his love for Al Rayyan. The little kid, who used to frequent the club several summers back clinging on to his father’s fingers, is now a big, strong lad. The boyishness is gone; he now sports a goatee and speaks in a slightly hoarse voice.

But Abdullah Taleb Afifa still wishes for his father’s presence whenever he takes the field.

He feels it provides strength to his mind and muscles.

Taleb Syed, Abdullah’s main source of inspiration, is now a contented man, with his son’s steady progress. Along with his younger son Mohammed, he used to patiently wait at the Qatar Stars League matches to see young Abdullah come in and play for a few minutes.

The father has always been watching his son grow.

A fractured leg two years ago hindered Abdullah’s progress, but he came back strongly last season to ensure a regular place in Rayyan’s starting eleven. He also made it to the Qatar senior national team for the first time and eventually won the Qatar Football Association’s Best Under-23 Player Award, learnt to be a unanimous decision.

As he reflects on a productive season, Abdullah just cannot stop talking about his family, which has been his ultimate support, in football and life.

“My family was with me in my good and bad times. They always made me feel comfortable so that I could forget everything else and concentrate only on the game. My father initiated me into football. He himself was a player, though not at the professional level. My uncle (Mohammed Taleb) was a part of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup silver-medal winning squad in Melbourne. My elder brother Syed too played, but stopped due to an injury. That way, you could say football is in my blood,” said the 21-year-old.

“As a child, I used to regularly turn up at Rayyan. It was awe-inspiring to watch the players perform the tricks. I then joined the club’s age-group teams, before moving to ASPIRE,” he said.

The defensive midfielder said the academy made revolutionary changes to how he played and perceived the game.

“ASPIRE was the right decision. I joined in 2004, a year before it was officially inaugurated. The academy offered me a chance to train under several experienced coaches, who were thorough professionals. I must admit that initially I found it a bit tough to balance training and academics. But the teachers and coaches influenced our approach and attitude and, more importantly, motivated us.

He was back at Rayyan in ‘09, where he was groomed by coach Paulo Autuori. Abdullah feels he was lucky to have the Brazilian as the coach during that crucial phase.

“I’m not even in a position to comment on Autuori as a coach because he’s too senior and knowledgeable a person for me. But from my experience I can tell you that he’s someone with a great personality. He helped me improve my game. He believed in all young players and, most importantly, provided us with a set of philosophies and ideas which improved our life altogether. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve worked with in my career, and he’ll have a special place in my mind,” said Abdullah.

Talking about Rayyan’s chances in the forthcoming season, Abdullah said they would not settle for anything less than the League title.

“We had a good last season and want to continue from where we had left off. Our squad is quite strong, with some very good foreign players. Rayyan, as everyone knows, are a big club with a huge fan base. We all know it’s high time we regained the League title. Our chances are quite bright this time around.

“But at the same time, it definitely brings a lot of pressure. As far as I’m concerned, the expectation will be high after I won the best U-23 player award. There’s a healthy contest among Rayyan’s young players for a place in the first eleven and my challenge begins there. But I’m confident.”

About his ambitions and future plans, Abdullah said his main aim was to help the Qatar national team win as many matches and titles as possible.

“People keep asking me whether I’m interested in playing in Europe. Frankly speaking, I’m not too bothered about it at the moment. I’m comfortable at Rayyan. Of course, I want to win a regular place in the Qatar national team and help the country win more accolades at the Gulf and Asian levels and, if possible, beyond.

“We’re all keen to qualify for the next World Cup in Brazil. We’re in a good situation at the moment (four points from three matches in the final round of qualification) and we must achieve positive results, especially at home to consolidate it. I’m optimistic,” said the player, who loves the Barcelona style of play and admires their midfield maestros Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. He might not be as talented as the Spaniards, but in his home town, none will dispute the fact that he has all the potential to be a star in his own right. If he is not one already, that is.