Qatar capped another dream performance at the AFC Asian Cup with a 3-1 victory over Jordan in the all-Arab final, retaining their title with home hero Akram Afif firing a hat-trick of penalties at packed Lusail Stadium last night.
The final whistle followed huge celebrations with teammates throwing Afif in the air in front of jubilant fans as Qatar emulated their incredible performance in the United Arab Emirates five years ago with another seven-match winning streak.
Amir H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani handed captain Hassan Al Haydos the glittering trophy as the majority of the 85,500 spectators at the iconic venue relished their team’s historic triumph.
Marquez Lopez’s side became the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back Asian Cup crowns since Japan in 2004. South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only other nations to win two straight Asian Cup titles.
Talismanic Afif enjoyed a memorable night as he put the hosts into the lead with a 22nd-minute spot kick before Yazan Al Naimat led Jordan’s fightback with a 67th-minute equaliser.
The 27-year-old then converted a penalty in the 73rd minute and sealed the triumph with another spot kick in the fifth minute of injury-time.
Afif’s first hat-trick in international football made him the tournament’s top scorer as he received the Asian Cup Player of the Tournament award after finishing with a total of eight goals.
“It's not about the technique or the angle, it's about feeling that the team and people are behind me. My teammates gave me the confidence and it was not possible without their support,” said Afif.
“It was not easy to secure back-to-back titles in this tough tournament but we worked hard right from the beginning and played as a unit."
Lopez, who took charge just a month before the tournament, was elated with the victory.
“The players made a great effort and were the heroes of the final. They gave their best efforts and I am so happy they swept the individual titles of the tournament also,” said Lopez.
“The atmosphere was wonderful and motivated the players to do well. This victory made this day one of the most memorable days of my life. It was a wonderful journey.”
Ranked 87th in world rankings – 29 places below Qatar – Hussein Ammouta’s Jordan had a slow start but they put up a strong fight in the second half in what was their first major final.
The title clash kicked off with huge cheers from the crowd and Afif kept Qatar’s fans on their feet as he looked to create early pressure on Jordan.
The Qatari live-wire gave a scare to Ammouta’s side in the seventh minute moving into the box from a Lucas Mendes ball but he was unable to beat Jordan goalkeeper Yazeed Abulaila with a hit from a difficult angle.
Mohammed Waad shortly followed with an ambitious hit from outside the box which was too high.
Yazan Al Naimat in Jordan’s first attempt in the 16th minute was on target but goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham comfortably punched away his shot from a distance.
Afif was behind Qatar’s fantastic pressing in the first half which saw the hosts making four shots on target from their five attempts.
The playmaker again rushed from the left and this time he was able to draw a foul from Abdallah Nasib inside the box and Chinese referee Ma Ning did not hesitate to point towards the spot kick, a decision which VAR later verified.
Afif comfortably converted the penalty with a low right-footed drive in the left corner, and he celebrated his goal in an unusual style in front of rapturous home fans, doing a card trick as he produced a playing card with his picture on it before the image flipped to an “S”.
"'S' is the first letter of my wife's name," he said.
Lucas Mendes had almost given Qatar a two-goal cushion but Abulaila rose to tip away his shot following a corner kick taken by Afif.
Qatar fans were relieved to see their star Afif back in action after he received an on-pitch treatment following an injury after a challenge with Mousa Al Tamari.
Al Tamari, the hero of the semi-final victory over South Korea, was right on target from a close range in Jordan’s best chance in the first half but Mohammed Waad thwarted the hit with a superb block.
The Montpellier forward in another last-gasp attempt before the half-time missed the target with the ball flying over the bar.
Jordan had a fiery start to the second half as they kept Barsham busy with threatening hits in short intervals.
The Al Sadd goalkeeper first blocked an Ehsan Haddad hit and then made a flying save to an acrobatic strike from Yazan Al Arab after a corner kick with Ali Olwan just missing the target.
Ammouta’s side was finally rewarded as they made a comeback into the match when Al Naimat gave no chance to Barsham slotting in the bottom left corner after Haddad’s cross with the first touch.
But a Mahmoud Al Mardi foul against Qatar’s 63rd-minute substitute Ismaeel Mohammad put the final back into Qatar’s favour as the referee handed them a second penalty after reviewing the pitch-side monitor again.
Akram again defeated the Jordanian goalkeeper with a hit on the left to restore the lead.
In an attempt to complete his hat-trick in the 83rd minute, the 27-year-old fired a shot in the bottom left corner but Abulaila did well to stop the ball.
But the Jordan goalkeeper committed a mistake in the injury time making a rash tackle inside the box to stop Afif, who was initially adjudged offside. But another VAR review confirmed he was onside as referee Ning awarded Qatar their third penalty of the final.
Afif comfortably converted the spot kick again as this time he nestled the ball in the right sending Abulaila in the wrong direction to wrap up Qatar’s successful title defence at home.
Barsham was named the Best Goalkeeper of the tournament for his pivotal role for Qatar. The custodian, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Wednesday, started six of Qatar's seven matches with Al Annabi.
Meanwhile, coach Ammouta said Jordan caved in under the weight of expectations.
"I talked before the game about the mental aspect. I told them to enjoy the game. It's a final but I told them to enjoy it."
He added: "There was a big focus on the players and I was scared that the environment would have an impact on them. People can have good intentions but it can have an impact on them (the players).
"Their interactions with their families and on social media put pressure on them. It was clear. I am the coach but I can't take their iPads and phones."