Qatar clinch their first ever Asian Cup in some style, cruising to a 3-1 victory over heavyweights Japan in what was a final that didn’t falter under heavy expectation. The names Almoez Ali, Akram Afif, Bassam Al-Rewi and Felix Sanchez are now written into Asian football folklore, but what about the rest of the world with this summer’s Copa America and the World Cup in 2022 still to come? For now, a quick look back on a terrific game for the neutrals, and the key talking points to take from it.
Given the realistic ambitions of Qatar heading into the tournament, one man had a greater amount of pressure on his shoulders than most to fire his side’s cause. Upon this, the nation’s first continental senior prize, Akram Afif can sit back and can comfortably believe that he exceeded his personal goals. No fewer than 10 assists (unofficially 11, but we’ll let the AFC off), with two coming in the final, Afif has been the chief creator behind a side that has blown away the rest of Asia over the last month. His match sealing penalty was the cherry on his cake, a campaign to be savoured.
This match in particular saw Afif’s all round game come to fore, past the mere (sic) statistics of scoring once and providing another two. His pace was continually a threat on the break, stretching the usually mobile Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu this way and that, as Qatar continually threatened the Japanese backline. For better finishing he could’ve even finished with greater assist figures, Abdulaziz Hatem’s scooped effort after a great run and find from Afif in the second period would’ve capped off a worthy hat-trick of assists.
The eternal question will be what next for Qatar’s golden boy? He of course has dipped his toe in European football before and been found wanting. After a positive start with Eupen in Belgium, a move too early to Villarreal really stunted progress. For Afif, alongside the likes of golden boot winner Almoez Ali, centre midfield dynamo Assim Madibo and others, the approach of blindly funnelling them through the Eupen based Aspire outpost seems to have hit a dead end. Given the magnitude of these performances however, could we be about to see some moves of greater significance come the summer?
There will be few arguments around, that the best team didn’t win the Asian Cup trophy. 19 goals scored by seven different scorers, only to concede once (in the final) along the way, Qatar were exceptional from start to finish. The initial praise needs to go to the coaching staff, and the patience of the federation’s hierarchy. This has been a project 10 years in the making, and with grander sights being set on the World Cup in 4 years’ time, this promises to only be the beginning. The framework was sound, but the players have developed through it at a rate of knots. To a man this Qatar side were at the top of their game.
For the final, I’d initially predicted that Qatar would set up in a similar manner to the way they did against Korea. Deep, cautious and brave, only to hit on the counter come the second period. Well, to a degree I was right, but that defensive start only lasted a few minutes. As soon as the likes of Assim Madibo and Boualem Khoukhi got a foot hold in the midfield, Qatar ramped up the gears and left Japan flatfooted. An exceptional bicycle kick from Almoez Ali, followed by a sublime curling effort from Abdulaziz Hatem steered them away from the Japanese charge.
When summing up Qatar’s success, I quickly gravitate to the view that they see themselves as a team against the world. That world of course, being the political tensions that surround the region to date. Some may have worried for their inexperience given the magnitude of their matches against Saudi Arabia and UAE, but the young men came through fighting. The eligibility concerns that swirled upon the final failed similarly to de-balance a focussed group that are out to prove their doubters wrong. A worthy performance, that deserves the highest of praise.
The Talking Point
For all the positives that can be taken out of today’s final, the last few days have been tiresome, something neither helped by the governing body or the individual federations involved. If only football was the talking point after such a varied and substantive month-long competition, but instead we’re questioning ill-advised referee appointments, TV rights debacles and questions over player eligibility. The AFC have a much tougher job than most, given the intense political arena that is Asia, but continually they lack initiative, forethought and clarity, leaving us more and more in the dark, time and time again.
Maya Yoshida, a man who has stepped up to the plate in his new responsibility as Japan captain on and off the field pointed to this very fact on the run up to the final. Few want to imagine football as a consumer object, but the fact is the Asian Cup is a weak product, something the governing body has done little to resolve. This week’s inaction to crowd disturbances in the semi-final between UAE and Qatar and the accusations of falsified eligibility documents has done far more to fan the flames of a perceived corrupt footballing landscape than it does to alleviate tensions.
I speak as an outsider looking in. There has been little media scrutiny out in the Western world on anything to do with the Asian Cup, it’s not been on TV for a start, whilst any mention of players playing in the tournament is often derided as a “mickey mouse tournament.” The two key “trending” moments of the tournament have been when Son Heung-min was “released” of his duty upon South Korea’s defeat to Qatar and the right royal mess surrounding the Qatari national team’s eligibility, which is still perceived as a side that has bought its way to the title. While the AFC will notably shrug and suggest they have little impact on this, it has a duty of care to protect its prize product. Lessons need to be learned if Asian football is set to improve in the coming four years.