Akram Afif’s teammates throw him up in the air after Qatar’s victory.Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
The 2023 Asian Cup ended as it had begun almost a month earlier: with Akram Afif scoring for Qatar. The first got the ball rolling for the hosts against Lebanon and the last came in the 95th minute of the final to make it 3-1 against Jordan. It meant the celebrations could really start among the vast majority of the 86,000 fans at Lusail Stadium.
All three of Qatar’s goals came from the penalty spot, converted by Afif, who ended the tournament as top scorer with eight. None were outrageous decisions by the Chinese referee, Ma Ning, despite the increasingly sarcastic applause by the Jordanian players. For those men in white, it was when the penalties came – especially the second – that was worse than how.
Related: Akram Afif’s hat-trick of penalties secures Asian Cup glory for Qatar
Afif opened the scoring in the first half after being bundled over in the box. Jordan, perhaps pinching themselves that they were here after defeating Iraq and South Korea, struggled to get going, sparking into life only in the minutes before the break.
It was a different story after as Jordan got on top and the equaliser from Yazan al-Naimat midway through the second half had been coming even if the way he controlled, turned and shot home was a delight. At that point, Jordan looked the likelier but within moments there was another rash tackle in the area, another video review, another penalty and another goal. It was hard to come back from that, though Jordan did their utmost until Afif sealed the win after he was again brought down in the area, this time by the goalkeeper.
The 27-year-old had celebrated with a card trick in honour of his wife and while it may not have been a magical performance from Qatar it was enough for this tiny Middle Eastern nation to become champions of the world’s biggest continent for the second successive time. The 2019 triumph was a dominant one, with 19 goals scored and one conceded, this one less so. Almoez Ali, on fire five years ago with nine goals, showed flashes of his former deadliness but was much less clinical, the captain, Hassan al-Haydos, can’t play 90 minutes and the defence is not the well-drilled unit of the past but even so Qatar had fortitude, resilience and Afif.
When their backs were against the wall in the quarter-final against Uzbekistan, they stayed in the game and won on penalties. When Iran were well on top in the semi-finals, they held their nerve and grabbed a winning goal that may have been against the run of play but was all the sweeter for that.
For those outside the continent, Qatar’s triumph will not reflect well on the strength of Asian football. After all, this is a team that have been crowned champions twice in five years but failed so spectacularly on home soil at the 2022 World Cup, losing all three games. Looking back, the training camp that lasted for months, robbing players of competitive action before their biggest competitive game – and first in the World Cup – against Ecuador was always risky.
It was always possible that the size of the occasion, the pressure and the desperate desire to do well would be too much and lead to a bad start which would quickly become something worse. If this was the Euros or even the Africa Cup of Nations then lifting the continental prize would go a long way to repairing that reputation. Rightly or wrongly, the Asian Cup does not carry the same clout and Qatar are going to have to qualify for the World Cup for the first time and then have a good showing in 2026.
And that is the target for Jordan too, perhaps the most impressive team during the knockout stages. This tournament has made stars of Naimat and Mousa al-Taamari. The latter was quiet in the final, but the Montpellier winger is the only one in both squads to play in Europe. Although that game was testament to the fact that well-coached cohesive teams full of home-based talent will outperform badly managed sides studded with stars (and, yes, that is a reference to Jürgen Klinsmann and South Korea), there is no doubt that everyone sees the next step as getting more players into the best European leagues.
Afif has tried and failed but said after the game that he wanted to go again, and at 27 now may be the time. Jordan’s coach, Hussein Ammouta, who has shown that he can bring success in Asia as well as Africa, wants Taamari to be joined by others as soon as possible. There are not many pioneers for Arab players from west Asian nations to look to and although there are many reasons for this, a lack of talent is not one of them.
The Asian Cup has shown that, and for Jordan and Qatar it is now all about 2026.