Hosts Qatar on Saturday retained the Asian Cup with a 3-1 win against surprise package Jordan as Akram Afif scored a hat-trick of penalties.
It was a fitting final act to a month of soccer that began with 24 teams, and witnessed a series of dramatic games and plenty of goals.
It will also help dispel the memories of Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, when they lost all three games, the worst record of any host in the competition’s history.
The 27-year-old Afif was the hero, holding his nerve once from the penalty spot in the first half and, after underdogs Jordan equalized, twice more in the second half.
He was named player of the tournament and finished top scorer with eight goals.
His teammates threw him in the air at the final whistle.
“It is not about the technique or the angle,” said Afif, asked how he was able to score three penalties under pressure in front of 86,492 spectators at Lusail Stadium. “It’s about the feeling that the team and people are behind me.”
Jordan were in their first Asian Cup final and contesting the biggest match in their history.
Ranked 87th in FIFA’s world rankings, 29 places below their opponents, they fell behind midway through the first half when Afif slotted home after being brought down in the penalty area.
Qatar deserved their halftime lead, but Jordan roared back to equalize through Yazan al-Naimat’s smart finish.
However, Jordan were level for just six minutes, Afif scoring once again from a penalty after the referee was advised by the video assistant referee (VAR) to go to his pitch-side monitor.
This time there was to be no Jordan comeback and Afif capitalized again from the spot for his hat-trick in stoppage-time, again after a VAR intervention.
Qatar came into the final attempting to become the fifth team to lift back-to-back Asian titles.
Qatar parachuted in the Spaniard Tintin Marquez to replace Carlos Queiroz just a month before the Asian Cup, in a major gamble that paid off handsomely.
“I took charge just before the tournament, but what was most important was that I knew the players, and they implemented my ideas fast and executed my plans,” said Marquez, who has a decade-long association with Qatari soccer and managed one of their club sides.
His team went ahead on 22 minutes when the danger man Afif, playing off the left, was clipped in the area by Abdallah Nasib.
Afif brushed himself down to plant his spot-kick into the bottom corner, just beating the outstretched arms of Yazeed Abulaila.
In an unusual celebration, Afif did a card trick — he produced a playing card with his picture on it before the image flipped to an “S,” in dedication to his wife.
Jordan, who defeated Son Heung-min’s South Korea 2-0 to reach the final, had been disappointing, but they cranked up the pressure in the second half.
A goal was coming and in the 67th minute it duly arrived, Naimat bringing the ball down with his right foot and then thrashing in with his left on the half-volley.
However, Qatar responded almost immediately and Afif produced the card trick once more after beating Abulaila from the penalty spot for a second time.
It was Afif, inevitably, who won the third penalty and he did the business once again.
Jordan’s Moroccan coach Hussein Ammouta felt his side wilted under the pressure of the biggest game of their lives.
“There was a big focus on the players and I was scared that the environment would have an impact on them,” Ammouta said. “People can have good intentions, but it can have an impact on them [the players].”
The competition, originally scheduled to take place in China last year, but postponed and moved because of COVID-19, will be remembered for shocks — even if the final failed to produce one last one.
Pre-tournament favorites Japan were dumped out in the quarter-finals by Iran, who subsequently lost to Qatar in a five-goal thriller.
Jordan reached the semi-finals for the first time and blew away South Korea, leaving coach Jurgen Klinsmann clinging precariously onto his job.
Tajikistan made the quarter-finals on their Asian Cup debut, while Palestine also made a piece of history by reaching the knockout rounds for the first time.
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