When one talks about Qatar and football, people struggle to remember the contributions of the country in the sport. They are ranked 93rd in the world, will play a FIFA World Cup in 2022 only because they are hosting the tournament, making them the first Arab nation to achieve this feat. In many tournaments, Qatar has struggled for impact, not going past the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup. However, in 2019, the tiny country of 2.6 million stunned the entire football world when they defeated four-time champions Japan 3-1 in the final to win the AFC Asian Cup for the first-time ever. The triumph of the Qatari football team comes amidst overwhelming odds and it came in the host country which has cut off ties with them.
Qatar’s arrival in the UAE for the tournament came at a time when diplomatic and political tensions were at fever pitch in the Gulf region. The United Arab Emirates became one of the countries to join Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt in breaking off relations with Qatar in June 2017. The relations reached boiling point over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and reportedly funding extremist groups in Syria. The countries withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar and advised their citizens to not travel to Qatar. The country also suffered a land and air blockade.
Due to the land and air blockade, Qatar had to take a longer route and come via Kuwait in order to participate in the tournament. The players were apparently not fazed about the diplomatic tensions and they got their campaign off to a great start, with wins over Lebanon (2-0) and North Korea (6-0). However, in the clash against Saudi Arabia, Almoez Ali scoring two goals in their 2-0 at Abu Dhabi to top the group. The win against a Saudi, the three-time champions was a shot in the arm.
Tense, hostile semi-final
Qatar entered the semi-final with a win over Iraq, the 2007 champions and South Korea, the two-time champions and their clash was against the UAE. In a tense match, the fans booed the Qatar national anthem but that only galvanised the team as Qatar won 4-0 to enter the final for the first time ever in the tournament. During the match, plastic bottles rained down from angry local fans with every goal scored with Hassan Al-Haydos getting hit on the eye. When the fourth goal was scored, more bottles and even shoes were flung at the players. “The players were aware there was going to be a lot of pressure but they managed their emotions quite well,” Qatar’s coach Felix Sanchez said.
Before the final, there was drama for Qatar regarding their leading striker Almoez Ali. The UAE Football Association (FA) protested the eligibility of Almoez Ali and Bassam Al Rawi just hours before their final against Japan. FIFA requirements mandate that a player switching national allegiance must either qualify through their parents or grandparents or have resided in a country for five years after their 18th birthday.
However, the AFC dismissed the protest and Almoez was allowed to play. In front of Qatar stood Japan, the four-time AFC champions and the Asian powerhouse. Japan had last lost to Qatar 31 years ago but in a stirring display, Qatar won 3-1 to clinch the title for the first time and produce a fairytale journey. After the match, the celebrations went on for hours in Doha but the weight of history was not lost on Qatar’s coach.
“Today we made history for our country, so we need to be very proud about our achievement. This is one step more towards being ready for 2022 and represent Qatar as a very competitive team at the World Cup,” Sanchez said. Indeed, Qatar’s triumph amidst tensions and hostility is one of the great sporting moments of 2019.