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“There is still a lot of cynicism, and misinformation, when it comes to Qatar, but this side of mostly home-grown talent can go a long way to silencing the critics in the UAE.”
This was my analysis of Qatar in my series of pre-tournament previews.
After their historic 3-1 win over Japan in the final, the critics have been well and truly silenced.
While they weren’t my pre-tournament prediction to win – that was South Korea – anyone who knew anything about Asian football knew this moment was coming for this team as far back as 2014, when they were crowned AFC U19 champions.
That squad featured the likes of Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Tarek Salman, Saleem al-Hajri and Tameem al-Muhaza. All five were part of the squad that just created history by winning Qatar’s first Asian Cup.
Two years later, at the 2016 AFC U23 Championships, Qatar made it to the semi-finals before losing to South Korea. Ten of that squad, which had an average age of just 20 (including 11 aged 19 or under), went on to make the 23-man squad for this tournament.
Then last year, the majority of that same team backed it up again with another semi-final appearance at the 2018 AFC U23 Championships, from which nine players were named for this year’s Asian Cup.
And throughout it all there has been one constant – Spanish coach Felix Sanchez.
The former Barcelona academy coach, appointed by the renowned Aspire Academy in 2006, before taking on the job as U19 national team coach in 2013, has been there every step of the way with this team. This is very much his team, and that is evident in the bond between Sanchez and his players.
When you track the progress of this side, that they won this Asian Cup should come as no surprise. And yet surprise has been the overriding emotion that has greeted their success, especially here in Australia.
I wanted to profile this Qatar team and their progress towards 2022 more than 12 months ago, yet no media outlet was willing to publish, so the story went unwritten.
This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ cry, but it speaks to a wider issue with the way the media in Australia approaches Asian football: everything is seen through an Australian prism.
It ultimately means we view things with such a narrow focus that we miss what is happening around us, and when we get to occasions – such as the Asian Cup – we aren’t aware of the quality of the other 23 nations.
Waleed Aly articulated it perfectly on the ABC’s Offsiders program on Sunday morning, when he said, “Remember the Asian Cup? When we’re not winning it we tend not to talk about it.”
Simon Hill has made a similar point repeatedly in recent months on the Fox Football Podcast, arguing that more media space needs to show and discuss Asian football, be it domestic or international, if we are to fully appreciate and understand the complex landscape and where Australia sits within that.
That said, the irony of Hill expressing that view on a Fox Sports medium isn’t lost. Let’s just hope his bosses are listening, especially with the AFC Champions League around the corner – another tournament we tend to ignore when Australian participation ends.
While it’s easy to smash the AFC and demand they should do more, and there is plenty more they could do, we also need to look in our own backyard and, in that respect, we are failing badly.
Speaking of failure, let’s touch upon Australia’s campaign.
Graham Arnold can try and paint a different picture, but no one is buying it – a quarter-final exit is a failure in anyone’s language, especially given the manner of our exit, going goalless in three of our five matches and failing to score in our final 215 minutes of football.
While injuries played their part – Aaron Mooy, Martin Boyle and Daniel Arzani all would’ve added significantly to the side – Australia weren’t alone in that regard, so it can’t be used an excuse, not so when Arnold himself declared pre-tournament that he expected Australia to win the title undefeated.
Elsewhere, the tournament failed to live up to the standard set by Australia four years ago, on and off the park. Crowds were well down, even with an extra 19 games in the schedule. There was also a general lack of a tournament vibe across the host cities, which wasn’t helped by the fact it was scarcely available on TV, with beIN Sports hiding it away on a subscription-only channel.
Watching games, therefore, was difficult, a point one coach made to me during the tournament. Like most of us, he too was missing the tournament buzz that we football junkies live for.
On the pitch, things weren’t much better. With Australia, Japan (for the most part) and South Korea struggling to hit top gear, the tournament was sadly devoid of any eye-catching football.
Iran impressed in brushing aside the minnows but were found wanting when faced with a decent opponent in the semi-final.
As for the hosts, while they may have made the semi-final, they were lucky to do so given their turgid form.
The low point, not just for them but for the tournament generally, came in that semi-final when their fans’ petulance and pettiness was on full display, showering the pitch with bottles and shoes as the Qataris scored goal after goal to humiliate the hosts.
Thankfully the tournament finished on a high note with arguably the best game of the competition. An emerging power taking it to an established one, with spectacular goals and in front a raucous, respectful and well-behaved crowd.
It may not have been the final the tournament deserved, but it was the final the tournament needed.