The 2019 AFC Asian Cup: Final Considerations

Mark Murphy is off out to put £100 on Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. Here’s why.

Qatar 3 Japan 1

“QATAR!!!???!!!” Jonathan Pearce asked/exclaimed, as future-disgraced Fifa former-president Sepp Blatter showed the cameras a card that shook the football world, with the ‘tiny Gulf nation’s’ name on it, the 2022 World Cup finals’ hosts. Eight years and two months ago though it was, I remember it like it were last Friday. And if Pearce was watching the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final, he probably DID say it last Friday.

Amoez’s Ali’s goal, which opened the scoring on 12 minutes, rather summarised Qatar’s finals. A bit scrappy at first, his first touch wasn’t fab. A decent, skilfully-executed second phase. No on-target bicycle kick is a bad one. But still a surprise success. Japan keeper Shuichi Gonda looked as if he should have stopped the shot’s relatively serene progress towards the inside of his left-hand post. But whether he saw the shot late or was put off by TEN touring the six-yard box, in his line of vision, in an offside position, he didn’t get there.

Qatar’s second goal was a more traditional ‘worldie.’ Gonda was beaten ‘all-ends-up’ (whatever that actually means…wouldn’t want all my ends up with 37,000 people watching) when Abdul Aziz cut inside Yuto Nagamoto and curled a fabulous left-footer from the edge of the box past Gonda’s outstretched right hand into the top corner of the net.

Qatar were full value for their interval lead, as the goals glared brightly out of an otherwise dull first half. Japan were a disjointed mess and improved after half-time because they couldn’t but. They all-but-monopolised possession early on but while their intermittent use of their more trademark intricate passing game had the Qataris defending semi-desperately, their ‘balls into the box’ strategy did not, as they headed chance-upon-chance firmly in the direction of Yokohama.

Abdul Aziz was less lethal from three yards than 18, finishing a rare Qatar break with the grace of Peter Crouch after a spell on a playground roundabout. And Japan were back in it after Takumi Minamino’s magnificent 68th-minute dink (his first goal in the UAE, surprisingly, given his involvement in many of Japan’s better moments). And Fox Sports commentator John Helm’s melodramatic assertion that “Qatar have 22 minutes of hell to go through, probably” seemed plausible.

Japan were actually “just cheating a bit by keeping players forward,” according to co-commentator John Wilkinson, clearly inured to cagey football by the plethora of it he’d seen in the UAE and unaware that attacking intent was quite within the laws of the game. But when Abdul Aziz got involved again, the third goal soon followed. Well. Soon-ish.

Aziz’s 78th-minute shot was deflected over the bar. And Japanese centre-back Maya Yoshida headed his attempt to clear the resultant corner against his outstretched arm. The handball as unintentional as it was clear. But it caused the final’s first open involvement of video assistance, which should have confirmed the on-field referee’s non-decision as the correct decision.

The system worked (“there’s no way on earth he’s tried to handle the ball” Wilkinson noted, correctly). But the referee didn’t (“this is the problem when referees make decisions having not played the game at any level whatsoever,” Wilkinson added, maybe harshly). He was possibly discombobulated by the breakneck speed of some of the replays (fans of a certain vintage might recognise it as ‘Benny Hill speed’). And he awarded the penalty, which the otherwise impressive Akram Afif awkwardly side-footed inches to Gonda’s right while Gonda dived so far to his left, so early, that it looked like some sort of protest at the award.

Poor award though it was, it clinched the right result on the evening. Japan huffed-and-puffed some more, affording Yoshida one headed chance at possible redemption from three yards, which he, of course, headed high towards his homeland. And Qatar leisurely match-managed their way to continental supremacy.

Tournament overview

It was the tournament a cursory glance at Fifa’s world rankings suggested. Before 2019, I hadn’t seen a great Asian Cup finals. I still haven’t…and not only because they weren’t on British telly.

The final was on at London’s Qatar embassy. But forgive me for not availing myself of that opportunity. I was able to watch it on a pub big screen because someone pointed their camera phone at one and posted it on YouTube. Until, presumably, they got caught just before the second goal, when the stream disappeared. Fox Sports’ stream of most of the rest appeared later.

And YouTube, one way or another, provided Vietnamese state TV and BEIN Sports full match and highlights coverage respectively of the whole competition, which proved worth the search adventures for the Vietnamese’ high-pitch enthusiasm and one BEIN Sports commentator’s habit/tic of bellowing “ooh-low-low” at missed chances. Still missed Tim Caple, Stewart Robson et al on Europsort, though.

The story was better, and the geopolitics more fascinating, than the football. The finalists, bar North Korea, were neat and tidy to some degree but lacked oomph. And there’ll be an African World Cup winner long before there’s an Asian one, on current form. “These players are in the shop window because there are scouts here from all the top European clubs,” Helm noted during the final. This sounded unlikely (that Milan sent scouts was deemed news in and of itself). And don’t expect a flow of naturalised Qataris at a Premier League club this summer.

The tournament script was, possibly, that the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ would celebrate exactly 40 years AS the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ with victory in the final. And they played the tournament’s best football, as impressive here as at last year’s World Cup, until the “no-brainer” moment predicted to the letter by my Iranian friend.

However, Qatar’s victory was no ‘Greece 2004.’ They were the top scorers and had the top scorer and best defence. Their mix of skill and power was in their coach’s own image and likeness, Felix Sanchez a visual mix of Pep Guardiola and Tyson Fury. Amoez Ali didn’t top-score only because he got four against North Korea. And whatever else could be said about the other teams in the UAE, one goal conceded in seven games said it louder.

The UAE got the best end of some bell-end officiating, all of which, surely significantly, pre-dated the tournament’s replacement of behind-the-goal assistant referees (BARs?) with Video Assistant Referees. Any team would miss their best player over a four-week tournament. But Omar Abdulrahman’s loss was more devaluing than it should have been. And by comparison, his brother/hair-a-like Mohamed resembled, and was about as much use as a David Luiz in a World Cup semi-final…or at Bournemouth.

Plucky territory was densely populated in the tournament’s early stages, with the team from war-ravaged Yemen and Syria making the most welcome appearances. The pluck largely withered under the demands of tournament football. But Yemen, Syria, the Philippines and others all gave ‘bigger’ names something to think about. While Thailand, occasionally, and Vietnam were lively presences.

And India were plucky and unlucky, with every right to expect their 4-1 win in their opening game to be enough in itself to guarantee a last-16 place as a good enough third-placed team. Indeed, they were good enough to qualify in that manner, except that they finished fourth in their group, cruelly denied by a Bahrain team whose neutral support deserved to be f*ck all because of Hakeem Al-Araibi (see below).

Of the ‘bigger’ names, China’s ‘experienced’ (old) squad were an expected disappointment, South Korea less so. The contrast between their tournament lethargy and Son Heung-Min’s pre and post-tournament dynamism for Spurs was stark and painful. In all truth, Japan were disappointing too, despite reaching the final. The tournament leaves a slightly whiffy legacy. The enduring images, especially for those denied TV coverage (I hide my bitterness well, eh?) were the shoes thrown, as per a traditional Arab method of expressing disapproval, at celebrating Qatari players in their semi-final humiliation of the hosts. A real ‘shouldn’t-laugh-but-you-do’ scenario, with added menace…and fear for the stadium official in the viral clip of one bombardment, climbing onto the narrow pitch-side barrier to exhort the shoe-throwers to chill, almost literally asking to be clonked on the nose by a size seven sandal.

Old school Middle East enmities were overshadowed by the modern political realities of a blockaded Qatar, with blockaders on the new champions’ fixture list. The group situation going into the game strongly suggested ‘Iran 0 Iraq 0.’ And no political and religious divide or history of conflict could raise the stakes at stake. Jordan/Palestine may have been the ‘PLO derby’ but the strongest reaction to that was ‘PL-who?’ judging by the low-key in which proceedings proceeded.

The geopolitical shadow cast over the tournament was the ‘blockade’ of Qatar by a number of Middle Eastern nations, including five finals’ participants, in protest at Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism in the region. The first ‘blockade derby,’ Saudi Arabia/Qatar, was also between two already-qualified teams, which dulled the football rivalry. And the blockade actually dulled rather than heightened the tensions surrounding the match, with Qatari support blockaded to the point of Isthmian League away followings for a midweek, mid-table game in December.

The effectiveness of this ‘blockade’ was most obvious at Qatar’s game against North Korea, which was never going to be all-ticket even without North Korea’s opening shambles against the Saudis. The finals were poorly attended, with crowds rattling around in even the smallest venues and plentiful seats even at some of the hosts’ games. But the 452 punters who stormed the gates of Al-Ain for Qatar’s 6-0 win were a remarkably niche bunch. Given my experience at my club, Kingstonian, I genuinely could have operated the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium turnstiles myself if the ‘crowd’ flowed in steadily.

Tournament schedules dimmed the potential group stage flashpoints, genius if so designed. But there was nothing schedulers could do about UAE/Qatar. And while the targets of fan displeasure at the game deserved to be ‘lucky there wasn’t a more serious incident,’ tournament organisers did not, as they failed to acknowledge the unlawful detention of one of their own players throughout the finals. When journalists attempted to raise Hakeem Al-Araibi’s plight, directly relevant to the tournament as it involved three competing nations to varying extents and faults, they were shut down. Fuck the AFC.

The treatment of Qatari fans and journalists made a mockery of the tournament’s slogan, “Bringing Asia Together.” But it would be impossible to feel even any merited sympathy for a nation which bought a World Cup’s hosting rights and is paying for its infrastructure construction by exploiting its workforce with sometimes fatal consequences. It is thus impossible to be joyous at their underdog triumph. It was a mediocre tournament, won by the ‘right’ team in footballing terms only.

Still should have been able to see it on British telly, though.