The 2019 Asian Cup is ongoing and the heat is on. While most of the media attention during the tournament will be on the traditional Asian heavyweights like Japan, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, one other team will also be put under the spotlight, for slightly different reasons. Qatar, the highly controversial host of the next World Cup in 2022, will have the eyes of the footballing world firmly glued to during the Asian continental showpiece.
While coverage of Qatar has been marred by reports of bribery, slave labor and human rights abuse since it was awarded the World Cup, the competitiveness of its national team will be the real focus of critics at the Asian Cup. Questions about Al-Annabi, “the Maroons” in Arabic, are not unwarranted. Qatar has never finished higher than fifth at the Asian Cup, and has never qualified for a World Cup. In 2022, Qatar will become the first team to host a World Cup without having qualified for one previously. Suffice to say, a massive challenge awaits Qatar coach Félix Sánchez Bas and a large part of that success will depend on the leadership of Boualem Khoukhi.
From humble beginnings a continent away
Despite having already amassed 50 caps for Qatar, Khoukhi’s career with Qatar almost never happened. Khoukhi’s journey started almost 5,000 kilometres away, at a third division club in the outskirts .. of Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Born in Bou Ismaïl, a small fishing town on the Mediterranean coast, Khoukhi began playing with JSM Chéraga, a small Algiers-based club that has bounced around the lower divisions of Algerian football. In 2010, while CR Belouizdad came knocking to sign Cheraga’s prized striker, a certain Islam Slimani, they also noticed the performances of a young Khoukhi, recently promoted to the first team by newly appointed coach Farid Zemiti.
As fate would have it, Cheraga’s president refused to sell Khoukhi, and a few months later he was on his way to Qatar to go on trial with Al-Arabi. It didn’t take long for Khoukhi to impress Al-Arabi’s coach Uli Stielike, and the versatile defender quickly made his way into the starting line-up and started turning heads in Qatari football. Just months after arriving to Doha, the Qatar FA president, Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani, declared: “Everyone wants Khoukhi to join the national team, not just Al-Arabi fans but also coaching the staff and the head coach Bruno Metsu.”
Although he was called up to Algeria’s Under-23 national team by Azzedine Ait Djoudi in preparation for the 2011 Africa U23 Championship and the 2012 Summer Olympics, and even travelled to Algeria to join the camp, Khoukhi ultimately decided that his international future lied in Qatar, turning down the chance to play for his native country.
Remake of 2014?
A key part of Félix Sánchez’s Qatar side, Khoukhi will hope that the team, as well as himself, can replicate the form showed during the 2014 WAFF Championship. During that tournament, Khoukhi led Al-Annabi to the title, winning all 4 of their games along the way. Although known for his defending, Khoukhi finished the competition with the Golden Boot, scoring 6 goals, including 2 goals in the final over Jordan.
Five years later, he is starting the appearance of Qatar in the Asian Cup against Lebanon. Will he be part of another great story in Qatari football history?