Lusail Stadium, Qatar – The world’s eyes were on the majestic Lusail Stadium once again as it played host to yet another historic final that saw hosts Qatar hold on to their Asian Cup crown against first-time finalists Jordan.
The country’s favourite footballing son and the tournament’s standout performer Akram Afif was the hero as he slotted in three penalties that gave Qatar a 3-1 win in an all-Arab AFC Asian Cup 2023 final on Saturday.
The hosts were one of the contenders for the crown but not outright favourites when they opened their tournament campaign with a 3-0 over Lebanon at the same venue last month.
But they leave Lusail as back-to-back champions – the first time the feat has been achieved since Japan’s consecutive wins in 2000 and 2004 – and with their star Afif as the continent’s best player.
Losing finalists Jordan leave with their hearts broken but their heads held high after an inspirational run at the tournament that landed them in their first-ever final.
✨ 𝐂 𝐇 𝐀 𝐌 𝐏 𝐈 𝐎 𝐍 𝐒 ✨
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 10, 2024
Nerves wreak havoc on Jordan
An-Nashama began the match with jangled nerves and under the weight of the expectations of their adoring fans. They were unable to complete moves and lay the ball through to their strike force of Musa Tamari and Yazan Al Naimat.
The poor start eventually cost them when Qatar were awarded a penalty midway through the first half and Afif was handed the ball by his captain Hassan Al-Haydos. The number 11 made no mistake and rolled down his sock to bring out a card with the letter S written on it to celebrate.
His unique goal celebration sparked social media debates but Afif later confirmed it was a nod to his wife whose name begins with the letter and whom he credits with his success.
“It was her first time watching me inside a stadium so I decided to dedicate it to her,” he told bemused reporters afterwards.
Jordan reemerged a much-improved side after half-time. Pushed on by their raucous supporters, the players began showing glimpses of their attacking prowess. It resulted in an equalising goal from Al Naimat and the game seemed to be heading for a nail-biting last half-hour.
As soon as the ball returned to Jordan’s half, Jordan defended clumsily and gave away another penalty. Afif duly obliged to score the goal that put his tournament Golden Boot award beyond any doubt.
The swift change in fortunes and scoreline seemed too much to take for the Jordanian players and their fans. Their loud chants gave way to stunned silence as Qatar’s fans celebrated in disbelief.
Later on, Jordan’s coach Hussein Ammouta would pinpoint the second penalty as the moment his team fell far behind the hosts.
“The timing of the penalties was crucial and they didn’t allow us to make a comeback,” he said in his post-match news conference.
Ammouta, who has won over Jordanians in a matter of weeks, said the pressure from players’ friends and families, as well as fans on social media, may have impacted their performance.
“I cannot take away their phones and tablets and tell them they can’t talk to people – but I did have a fear that these factors would have an impact on their mental state during the match.”
‘Cristiano of the Middle East’
Qatar’s win and Jordan’s fate were sealed in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Afif completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot after being handed the ball yet again by his teammates.
The 27-year-old was the standout performer and it was only a matter of time that he would be linked to European leagues.
But the Al Sadd striker, who has had loan spells at Spanish clubs, evaded the questions and said any potential move would have to be initiated by a club and approved by his beloved wife.
“For now, what I do know is that we’re back-to-back [Asian] champions,” Afif said with a shrug.
With his player-of-the-match performance, Afif won over new fans from across the Arab world.
“He [Afif] is too good – my word, he’s the Cristiano [Ronaldo] of the Middle East,” Mohammed Rabeea, who came to watch the math from Kuwait, told Al Jazeera after the match.
Others, like eight-year-old Mohammed al-Kaabi, were over the moon to see the player score a hat-trick.
“It’s the happiest day of my life!” the young fan exclaimed outside the stadium.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was in attendance during the match and handed warm embraces and winners’ medals to al-Annabi.
When the time came for the trophy to be handed to the winning captain Al-Haydos there was a moment’s delay. What trophy presentation in Lusail is complete without a black-and-gold bisht? The emir helped his captain put on the now world-renowned cloak before handing him the glistening trophy that never left Qatar.
Al-Haydos, Afif and Qatar’s hero in goal Meeshal Barsham collected the tournament’s top awards and ensured the trophy doesn’t leave the country for another four years – at least.
Lusail Stadium lit up with a ring of fireworks once again and its adjoining boulevard hosted another champions’ parade a year on.
The party that started in Lusail carried on towards different parts of the country with beeping cars and waving flags.