"Everyone now knows Qatar in beach volleyball. It's on the map."
Cherif Younousse was clear that he and partner Ahmed Tijan would go down in the history books after winning the country's first Olympic medal in the sport, as they claimed bronze in the men's competition at Tokyo 2020 in 2021.
The duo were the number one team in the world when they arrived in Japan, but their journey to the sand of the Shiokaze Park hadn't been easy at all.
In fact, only a few months earlier their Olympic qualification was far from certain, as they hovered just above the qualification cut-off line in the provisional rankings.
Things changed at the beginning of the 2021 season, when an incredible run of results helped them quickly climb the standings, transforming Cherif - Ahmed into the hottest beach volleyball team on the men's circuit.
And now the two Africa-born Qataris are ready to write even more history, setting their eyes on the upcoming FIVB World Tour Finals in Cagliari, Italy, and on next year's World Championships in Rome.
Born in Africa, developing in Qatar
Qatar is covered by a lot of sand, but is not famous for its beach sports.
That lack of tradition didn't stop the ambitious Arabic nation from assembling one of the best volleyball teams in the world.
Cherif was born in Senegal, where he played on the beaches from the age of eight, inspired by his older brother: “Senegal is not that well developed, however, so when an agent offered me to go to Qatar, I accepted. It’s something amazing for me and I don’t regret my decision,” he told FIVB.com.
Ahmed grew up in neighbouring Gambia, playing football, table tennis, and street volleyball: “Around 2011 I went to Senegal to improve my indoor volleyball skills, because they have a better league. Then I met a manager and through him I received the chance to go to Doha," the 26-year-old recalled, adding that he played indoor for a few years before switching to beach volleyball.
The Qatar Volleyball Association provided support and facilities, and their effort paid off.
After a short stint with Tijan back in 2014, Younousse qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics along with Brazilian-born Jefferson Santos Pereira and they reached the Round of 16.
When Cherif and Ahmed united in 2018 to target the qualification for Tokyo 2020, their newly-formed partnership brought more success for Qatar, with them clinching the country's first titles at the Asian Games and AVC Asian Championships, and one year later adding one more continental crown and silver medals in the four-a-side competition at the ANOC World Beach Games in their home capital Doha.
"Sooner or later, we are going to be Olympic champions or world champions, for sure. I believe that,” Younousse said after rejoining Tijan in 2018.
A fantastic 2021 for the Qatari pair
After a 2020 calendar cut short by the pandemic, 2021 became their definitive breakthrough season.
It all started in February, with a win at the Doha 1 Star event, their first title in the World Tour.
After then making the quarter-finals at their home 4-star event, Cherif & Ahmed reached the final in five of the next six World Tour tournaments, winning the third Cancun event.
A sensational run that took them from number 13 to the top of the men's world rankings in just a few months, but what may seem like a quick rise was actually a long time in the making: "It didn’t start now. It started in 2012. Mentally and physically, it was not easy. It took us maybe six or seven years to build this team. But we trust the process," Cherif told Vollyeball World.
“It was all the hard work, waking up at seven o’clock, going to the gym when everybody is sleeping and sacrificing a lot of things, having some ups and downs through the process. But we believed in that; we didn’t just give up. We kept pushing, our staff, my partner and I," he added.
“It was hard work, patience and discipline. We knew that we had the potential. What we were focused on was how to express those feelings, how to play better year by year." - Cherif Younousse.
Beating Olympic medallists on the way to bronze
In Tokyo, Cherif and Ahmed dominated their pool with three 2-0 wins.
In the first knock-out round they came from a set behind to defeat Team USA's veteran duo of Nick Lucena and Beijing 2008 gold medallist Phil Dalhausser. The now retired American is also one of idols of Cherif, along with Olympic champion Alison Cerutti.
On the way to bronze, the Qatari team also saw off Rio 2016 silver medallists Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo of Italy in the quarter-finals, before losing to 2019 world champions Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy from ROC in the semis.
However, they celebrated their first Olympic campaign together with a medal after a straight-sets victory against Latvia's Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs in the bronze final match.
"It’s a really great feeling for the people of Qatar," Cherif said after their historic result.
"They are really proud of us and that was the goal. Now it’s a dream come true and we are grateful."
“I believe we can achieve more. I believe in Cherif and I believe in myself. We have energy and we never give up. We always fight every ball until we see it drop.” - Ahmed Tijan
Tokyo 2020 medal just the start
Their bronze in Tokyo was an important result not just on personal level.
"Everybody now knows about Qatari beach volleyball. That was the goal", Cherif added.
"But we didn’t start now. Norway didn’t start now; they really have a school of beach volleyball. And Qatar is the same. We have all the facilities. But, like I said, it took us eight years to get here. Can you imagine? Now we are happy, but the marathon continues.”
The World Championships are now one year away, with Paris 2024 following up, and the Olympic podium looks like an ideal springboard for the pair.
“At the World Championship we will be one of the favourites. But the level of beach volleyball is so high it’s really not easy to say, ‘OK, this is the team who is going to win it’," the 26-year-old blocker said.
"All of the top 15 are really good enough to be successful at the World Championship or the Olympics. So right now we are just going to work hard and try to play better than this year.”