The final whistle blows in the 2019 Asian Cup

The final whistle blows in the 2019 Asian Cup
Asian Cup 2019: Qatar, the unlikely victors, have proven all critics wrong and paved the path to the 2022 World Cup.
4 min read
01 Feb, 2019
FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L) and AFC President Salman Al-Khalifa (2nd-L) present the trophy [Getty]

After a month of 50 games, more than 120 goals and countless emotional and heroic moments - the final whistle has blown in the 2019 Asian Cup.

In the morning, the AFC Disciplinary and Ethics Committee dismissed a protest lodged by the UAE over the eligibility of two Qatar players, Bassam al-Rawi and Almoez Ali.

The announcement cleared the fog enveloping Abu Dhabi's complaint - lodged following the amazing 4-0 thrashing of the host nation by the Qataris.

Zayed Sports City stadium was surprisingly almost full for the final match, between Japan and Qatar. 

The Qataris had arrived at this point as the finale to a tremendous tournament. Qatar managed to lose no matches, concede zero goals and scored 16 of their own during their run to the final in the UAE.

Could Japan become the undisputed top Asian footballing nation with a record five AFC Asian Cup wins - or woud Qatar become the surprising but deserved debutants?

The answer was deep inside Qatar's Spanish coach - Felix Sanchez Bas - and his players.

Japan started well, but after only twelve minutes, the showtime began.

Almoez Ali received the ball inside the box with his back to Shuichi Gonda's goal, but with two "keepie-uppies" from the left and right feet, he performed an extraordinary bicycle kick over his head, sending the ball to the right post and into the net.

It was a remarkable goal that put Qatar up 1-0, with Almoez becoming the top goalscorer in a single tournament in Asian Cup history. His nine goals surpasses even the achievements of legendary Iranian striker Ali Daei. The goal assist was from the top passer in the tournament - Akram Afif - who had until then provided no fewer than 10 goal assists, including all of Almoez's goals.

It didn't take long before Qatar were up 2-0. Akram Afif, again as the leading figure in the attack, opened the game from the front and passed to Abdulaziz Hatem, who from around 20 metres out sent in a beautiful strike to the upper corner of the net. It was Hatem's second goal of the tournament and Afif's eleventh assist.

The stadium was in complete shock. With zero mistakes and endless composure, they were watching the best half played by any Arab team in many years.

The second half started with huge pressure from Japan. The Qatari defence stood well and displayed great stamina and coordination. But with an injury to Boualem Khoukhi, a key member of Qatar's back line, the confidence of the Annabis was sapped.

Exactly at Qatar's lowest, in the 69th minute, the pressure of the Blue Samurais brought results - Yuya Osako created havoc near the box, and found Takumi Minamino, who scored from close range to make it 2-1.

It was the first goal Qatar had conceded in the Asian Cup 2019 and the game was back on.

Just as it looked Japan were mounting a brave fightback, drama took the field when, in what was a rare attack by that point in the second half, Qatar won a corner.

Almoez Ali headed the inbound lob straight into Maya Yoshida's arm within the box, and Ravshan Irmatov, the Uzbek referee, called for the VAR. After reviewing the footage, Irmatov showed a yellow card to Yoshida and pointed to the spot.

Akram Afif, the prince of Asian football, converted the penalty into Qatar's third goal - 3-1.

Against all odds, all predictions, even immediately before this final, Qatar has done the unbelievable, the magical, even the surreal. A team that the whole world has enjoyed opposing, because of the controversies surrounding the 2022 World Cup, because of the blockade by its neighbours, because of some of their players' origins - has answered their critics on the pitch, with one of the best ever tournaments for a Middle Eastern team in an Asian Cup.

But their achievements were more even than that. Qatar seems to be one of the best Middle Eastern sides ever. Maybe with the potential even to be one of the best Asian sides ever.

The investment in the Aspire academy was proven worthwhile on February 1, 2019. There's no better proof for development and investment in education in football, and this victory and throughout the tournament, Qatar's national team has definitely shown it.

The Qatari road to World Cup 2022, controversial to so many, has been given a huge boost in this Asian Cup, with a serious mark of a very strong Middle Eastern national team ready to host the tournament in less than four years. 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.