A first taste of gold

Qatar’s Asian Cup win has not only put the country in the spotlight, but has also created a consensus that it won’t merely be a participating nation when it hosts the 2022 World Cup.

The win will serve as a massive impetus for Qatar.   -  AP

Veni, vidi, vici. The marauding Maroons came, saw and conquered Asian football in astonishing fashion.

Ranked outside the continent’s top 10 teams, few apart from former Barcelona midfielder Xavi expected Qatar to lift the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. But marshalled by Spaniard Felix Sanchez, who has been at the helm for a little less than two years, the Qataris went on an absolute rampage in the United Arab Emirates, leaving behind better-favoured teams like South Korea and Saudi Arabia in their path of destruction, scoring a phenomenal 19 goals and conceding just one, that too in the final after 608 minutes of play.

The Qataris braved the odds, which were aplenty, on their way to their first major trophy. Firstly, Qatari citizens are largely barred from entering the UAE, as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf state has been estranged from its neighbours since June 2017, mainly because of its alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia consider a terrorist organisation. Consequently, Qatar played without any support, barring a lone South Korean fan and a handful of Omanis.

Qatar’s national anthem was met with jeers, but the players motored on, even amid a barrage of sandals and water bottles that rained on them every time they scored against the UAE in the semifinals.

In the semifinal between Qatar and the UAE, the 38,000 supporters of the home team turned hostile and water bottles and sandals were launched onto the pitch.   -  Getty Images

 

Qatar was accused of document tampering and illegal naturalisation of players by the UAE, as late as a few hours before the final, and the UAE Football Association had lodged a formal complaint with the Asian Football Confederation over the eligibility of two of Qatar’s players, which was subsequently dismissed by the AFC.

But the 11 men on the pitch had their blinkers on, remained focused on the task at hand and delivered to perfection. And to call this win a fluke would be an injustice to a side moulded by Sanchez into champions.

While the team had the best facilities and ready finances, the kind of technical superiority and skills it displayed went unmatched in the tournament.

After a 10-year coaching stint with La Liga giant Barcelona, Sanchez arrived in Qatar to join the famed Aspire Academy in 2006. He was named the under-19 coach in 2013 and led the side to the AFC U-19 Championship title the following year. He then went on to work with the U-20 and U-23 teams before taking charge of the senior team in July 2017. Sanchez knows his players down to the T and as many as 10 members of his U-23 team were included in the Asian Cup squad.

Three years from now, Sanchez will have a bigger task when the FIFA World Cup comes home. With an average age of 25 years today, the current players will be expected to form the backbone of the team in 2022.

Unruly crowds cast shadow over UAE’s performance

Given that the host nation has won the Asian Cup on seven occasions, the UAE looked set to at least replicate its best-ever finish — runner-up in 1996 — when it qualified for the semifinals. But the side needed luck to get there. After the group stage, it faced Kyrgyzstan in the round of 16, and edged ahead 3-2 after a last-gasp strike by Kyrgyz forward Tursunali Rustamov thundered off the crossbar. A strong performance in a 1-0 win against defending champion Australia followed in the quarterfinals, setting up a tantalising match against Qatar. It had all the makings of a modern-day classic, but the outrageous happenings at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium will be what the match is remembered for.

Almoez Ali (right), the 22-year-old who struck a record nine goals in the Asian Cup for Qatar, celebrates after scoring the opening goal in the final against Japan.   -  Getty Images

 

Qatar entered the tie as the favourite, and it lived up to its billing, handing the UAE a 3-0 thrashing. As the match unfolded, the 38,000 supporters of the home team turned hostile and water bottles and sandals were launched onto the pitch, and Qatar captain Hassan Al-Haydos was struck by an object after scoring the third goal. The referee stopped the game to clear the pitch, but there was little he could do to contain the crowd. The Emiratis may have made the semifinals, a proud moment in their football history, but their fans’ behaviour surely sullied that moment.

The curious case of the many Messis

The 2019 Asian Cup had as many as three Lionel Messis in action — India’s Sunil Chhetri, Thailand’s Chanathip Songkrasin and Sardar Azmoun of Iran all of whom drew comparisons during the tournament and inspired their teams to their capacity. Chhetri scored a brace to guide India to its only win of the campaign against Thailand, Songkrasin was the midfield architect who created defence-splitting passes and Azmoun formed a lethal combination with Mehdi Taremi and netted four of Iran’s goals. But the man who stole the limelight was 22-year-old Almoez Ali, who struck a record nine goals for Qatar, the best of them a mesmerising bicycle kick in the final against Japan. Ali was instrumental in his side’s success, scoring in five out of seven matches, including four against North Korea.

While he may not be considered a “Messi” just yet, he will have a chance to rub shoulders with the man himself when Qatar plays as a guest team at the Copa America later this year.

‘Bringing Asia Together’

The slogan of the Asian Cup was ‘Bringing Asia Together’, and in some ways it might have. Having expanded to 24 teams, there was a common feeling that this would lead to a dilution of competition and far too many one-sided games. However, that was not the case as the likes of debutant Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Jordan sprung surprises by progressing to the knockout stage. And lest we forget, Jordan managed a memorable 1-0 win over 2015 champion Australia in its opening group game.

Felix Sanchez, who coached Qatar’s U-19, U-20 and U-23 teams before taking charge of the senior team in July 2017, at the Doha airport with his children after returning from the UAE with the Asian Cup.   -  AFP

 

There were games whose results were predictable, such as Iran’s 5-0 hammering of Palestine, but there were also some that went right down to the wire, like India’s 1-0 loss to Bahrain in stoppage time and Australia’s sensational 3-2 win over Syria with less than two minutes on the clock, which ensured some edge-of-the-seat action.

When it came to the fans, traditional powerhouses such as Iran, Japan and Iraq and even India enjoyed terrific support from the stands. Iran’s fans turned out in enormous numbers and their deafening chants kept stadiums alive. On the other hand were games that hardly had any spectators. When Qatar thumped North Korea 6-0, just 452 people were present at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain. But that could mostly be put down to political isolation of the two countries, but the attendance figures didn’t augur well for the tournament's slogan.

Looking ahead

The win will serve as a massive impetus for Qatar. The title has not only put the country in the spotlight, but has also created a consensus that it won’t merely be a participating nation when it hosts the 2022 World Cup. The emergence of stars such as Almoez Ali and Akram Afif will be the big takeaway for Sanchez as he looks to iron out the creases and put together another champion team that will light up the World Cup in a little over 1,400 days from now.