An AFC Asian Cup 2023 full of entertaining football, shock results and late, late goals, ended in suitably dramatic finish, with Akram Afif’s hat-trick of penalties securing a 3-1 win for hosts Qatar against the tournament surprise team Jordan in Saturday’s final.
Here are five talking points from the action at Lusail Stadium in Doha.
Not an ideal final, but no complaints about penalties
Casual fans overseas may look at the host of a major tournament getting to the final, playing in front of over 80,000 of their fans, and then getting three penalties that settled the tie, as something a little suspicious.
In truth, scoring all three of your goals from the penalty spot is not the ideal way to settle a final. It did seem a little anticlimactic, but then there is not much that Qatar could have done about that.
All three penalties were fairly solid. There was little real real controversy in any of the individual decisions. If they had been given in the English Premier League, there would not have been days of discussion on radio phone-ins, highlights programs and then on social media.
It was just a case of Jordan falling asleep at crucial moments of the game, and when there is someone like Akram Afif then the consequences can be severe.
Qatar are now an Asian powerhouse
The last team to successfully defend the Asian Cup was Japan back in 2004. It is a hard thing to do and not to be sneezed at. Winning once can be described as a flash in the pan — look at Greece taking the European title 20 years ago — but to do it again cannot be ignored.
This performance may not have reached the levels of 2019 when the Maroons swept all before them, scoring 19 and conceding just one.
The current version is not as dominant as the one that won last time in the UAE. It was much more of a mixed bag in terms of performances, but they showed admirable mental strength and overcame every obstacle when under pressure.
Despite being under the cosh in the second half against Uzbekistan in the quarters, they came through to win on penalties. Against Iran in the last four, Team Melli should have won, but it was Qatar who prevailed, and now they have joined that select group of Asian powerhouses.
Jordan should be proud
It has been a fantastic tournament for Jordan, a team that little was expected of before it all started. Finishing third in the group surprised nobody.
However, the round of 16 is were most people expected the run to end, as opponents Iraq had been impressive.
But in one of the matches of the tournament Jordan came out 3-2 winners to move into the quarterfinals, equalling their best-ever finish. There, they beat Tajikistan 1-0 to move into uncharted waters.
But, surely, South Korea in the semifinals would be too much? Not for this team, as Jordan produced the best performance of the entire competition.
Losing in the final, especially as, when Yazan Al-Naimat equalized midway through the second half, Jordan were completely on top and looked like the likeliest of winners, is painful. It is even more so as it came to three penalties, but now Al-Naimat and Mousa Al-Taamari are feted and respected around Asia and maybe elsewhere. Over time they, and all of Jordan, will look back on the last few weeks with immense pride.
Akram Afif now has to build on this
The top scorer and tournament MVP made the difference in the final with his hat-trick of penalties. It was not quite as easy as it sounds, as it was his direct running and trickery that produced two of those spot kicks. Afif had a great tournament from start to finish. Unlike his fellow star of 2019 Almoez Ali, who was a bit hit and miss this time, the winger matched the exploits of five years ago.
He has tried his luck in Europe before — in Spain and Belgium — before returning home. Perhaps back then it was all a case of too much, too young. Now he is 27, an experienced international with over 100 appearances for his country, and one of the biggest names in Asian football. It could be time for a second bite of the European cherry and if he chooses his destination well, it could be that it is a case of second time lucky.
Europe-based players not everything
At the start of the tournament it was assumed that either Japan or South Korea would win.
The reasoning was that these two countries had squads that were full of players active in some of Europe’s top leagues.
Just look at South Korea, who had stars such as Son Heung-min, captain of Tottenham Hotspur; Bayern Munich’s Kim Min-jae; and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain.
These are immensely talented players, but this competition showed that a well-coached team full of players who can carry out tactics perfectly can overcome one packed with Europe-based stars.
Of the two teams that made the final, there was only one player active in Europe. Jordan and Qatar showed that being a cohesive team is the basis for success.