Qatar Wins AFC Asian Cup With 2 Spectacular Goals To Cap Unlikely Title
Get the best email in soccer.
No one in the region seemed to want this to happen — even fewer (outside of Xavi) expected it — but Qatar is the best team in Asia.
With its fans banned from the host country due to diplomatic tensions in the Middle East, a tiny population and little footballing tradition prior to FIFA awarding the nation 2022 World Cup hosting rights, Qatar’s 3-1 victory over Japan in the AFC Asian Cup final capped an unlikely run to the Maroons’ first-ever major soccer championship.
And they did it in some style, with two incredible first-half goals.
Aside from the contentious 2022 World Cup bid and ownership in European clubs, few relate Qatar to soccer. The Maroons have never qualified for a World Cup and before this year had never been past the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup, the championship tournament for the Asian confederation.
This year’s tournament was hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of a number of nearby states who have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. During a 4-0 semifinal victory over the host country, Qatar’s national anthem was booed, fans threw shoes at the Qatari players and the UAE squad resorted to physical violence to try to stop the Maroons, resulting in one red card and another that should’ve been given.
The country of about 2.6 million — in comparison Japan has 127.4 million and fellow tournament participants India and China have more than 1.3 billion each — overcame incredible odds just to reach the final, including an impressive win over South Korea in the quarterfinals.
Hours before the match, the Asian Football Confederation cleared Qatar of any wrongdoing after the UAE accused the country of fielding two ineligible players, including the tournament’s leading scorer Almoez Ali. The confederation released a one-sentence statement to put the issue to rest.
AFC Asian Cup Final Highlights
It was Ali who scored the game’s first goal, perhaps the best goal of the tournament. In the 11th minute, Akram Afif, who’s on the books at Villarreal but currently on loan with a Qatari club, chipped the ball into the box. Ali juggled the ball up with his left foot, then his right foot, then launched an acrobatic bicycle kick into the lower corner of the net. All the while the Japanese defenders just watched.
Insert exploding head emoji.
Ali’s ninth goal set a new record for the AFC Asian Cup. The previous record was held by Ali Daei of Iran, the all-time leader in international goals with 109. Almoez Ali, 22, was born in Sudan but has played for Qatar since 2014 at the youth level, making his senior debut in 2016.
Qatar again ripped Japan’s defense to shreds in the 27th minute when Hatem Abdulaziz, who scored the winner against South Korea, ripped a menacing shot from about 25 yards out to make it 2-0 at the break.
Japan did pull one back in the 69th minute.
Takumi Minamino made a brilliant turn before scooting the ball past Qatar keeper Saad Al-Sheeb to give the Blue Samurai hope.
But that hope was dashed late in the match when VAR awarded Qatar a penalty kick for a hand ball in the box.
Afif sent Japan’s Shuichi Gonda the wrong way and celebrations back in Qatar could begin in earnest (but not with booze, because that’s outlawed there, for better or worse).
The unlikely win means Qatar, a country flush with cash, will pocket $5 million in prize money. In comparison, the U.S. women’s national team received $2 million for winning the 2015 women’s World Cup and the 2019 women’s World Cup will give the champion $4 million.
Xavi probably could have won that much money had he placed bets on his predictions for the tournament, which had seven of the final eight correct and Qatar beating Japan in the final.
While many will want to question Qatar and suggest it went about winning in a nefarious way, it’s worth praising the players who made this happen. The Maroons, under coach Felix Sanchez, a former Barcelona youth coach, are young and exciting to watch. The average age of this roster is 24 and they could be peaking by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around.
Next up for Qatar: the 2019 Copa América, where the Maroons will be competing in Group B against Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay.
Win that, and we’ll really be impressed. (Or just more suspicious.)