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Akram Afif stakes claim as one of Asian Cup’s greatest as Qatar win back-to-back titles

LUSAIL, Qatar — Twice, the crowd roared as the dawning realisation of what was about to happen spread like waves amongst them but by the third time, they definitely knew what was coming.

For cometh the hour, cometh Akram Afif.

After positioning himself to take the 21st-minute penalty that would open the scoring in Qatar‘s 3-1 win over Jordan in the Asian Cup final on Saturday evening, Qatar skipper Hassan Al-Haydos instead turned away and knocked the ball into the hands of a waiting Afif.

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It was a move the Qataris have pulled before, the subtle art of mental disintegration in penalty shootouts, but the crowd responded anyway.

In the 73rd minute, with the scores locked at 1-1 after Yazan Al-Naimat had fired the gallant Jordanians level as part of an improved second-half effort, VAR intervention led referee Ma Ning to determine that Mahmoud Al-Mardi had unfairly brought down Ismaeel Mohammad in the Jordanian penalty area.

Almoez Ali stepped up, before he too turned on his heel and handed the ball off to Afif.

Another roar rang out.

Then, in the 91st, following another VAR intervention, this one seeing Ning award a penalty after Jordanian keeper Yazid Abu Layla was adjudged to have brought down Afif’s burst behind the Chivalrous Ones’ lines, Almoez again stood over the spot, ball in hand.

Only this time, the crowd wasn’t going to be fooled. Nobody in Doha was fooled at this point and the Lusail Stadium thundered with a call for Afif to take the spot kick, noise that rose to another level when he moved forward.

On each occasion, the Qatari contingent of the 86,492 reported attendees emanated a sense of eager anticipation and confidence.

Not only for the second consecutive Asian Cup title that would soon be theirs, but for a legacy-defining moment for one of the Asian Cup’s greatest-ever players.

The 27-year-old had played a defining role in lifting his side to an upset 3-2 win over Iran in the semifinals just days prior and now, it would fall upon his shoulders once more.

And on all three occasions, he was up for the challenge.

To Abu Layla’s credit, he reacted quickly after Afif’s stutter-step run-up and side-footed effort on the first penalty, coming agonisingly close to getting a hand to the shot as he moved down and to his right. But the shot was hit with too much direction and power, nestling into the bottom corner of the net and putting Qatar into the ascendancy.

The Jordanian keeper would again guess right on the second but, once again, prove unable to get a hand to a wickedly hit effort as it flew beyond him and into the back of the net.

Afif then got one up on the keeper when he sealed his hat trick at the death, burying a shot into the bottom right corner as the keeper dived to his left. Qatar’s status as just the fifth Asian nation to defend its crown was now secured off the boot of its talisman.

In 2019, Afif provided ten assists and netted once as Qatar secured their first continental crown. This time around, propelled by his hat-trick in the decider, he has taken out the tournament’s Golden Boot with eight goals, as well as grabbing a further three assists.

More than one and a half goal involvements across two Asian Cups, a key cog in one title and a figure without which a second one simply does not happen — the attacker earning deserved recognition as best on ground and player of the tournament in the aftermath of Saturday’s final.

After his first penalty, he reached into his sock and pulled out a trading card featuring his likeness in celebration of his first goal, showing it to the camera and kissing his ring finger before performing a sleight-of-hand trick to reveal an ‘S’ drawn on the other side. He confirmed post-game that it was a tribute to his wife, who was attending her first match at Lusail; Afif’s own tribute as he was etching his name into the annals of Asian Cup history.

Indeed, to watch Afif in action on stages such as the Asian Cup is to come to engage in an act of simultaneous appreciation and selfishness; of admiration for what he is capable of on a football pitch and a yearning to see someone of his talents tested against the world’s best.

His work to win the penalty was a devastating case in point.

Seconds before Ma pointed to the spot, he had been bearing down the left flank, cushioning perfectly a pass from Lucas Mendes to accelerate beyond defender Abdallah Nasib and towards the Jordanian penalty area in one smooth movement. A lethal blur of afro hair and maroon kit, he would subtly shift his body weight one way and then the other to gain a step on his pursuer before bursting towards the box, with Nasib’s attempts to recover only resulting in the pair’s right legs clipping into each other.

The 27-year-old had brief spells in Spain and Belgium earlier in his career but settled himself at Qatar Stars League side Al Sadd in 2018 — but what if?

That’s not to be dismissive of Qatar’s domestic league, moreso an almost yearning to see just what would happen if this dynamo, one seemingly at the peak of his powers, was tested week in and week out against some of the world’s best defenders while deployed alongside the world’s best attackers. Post-game, he would speak of that of course the idea appeals to him but that it’s not just up to him about his future, that there are many views to be heard, not the least of which is his wife.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” he reflected, “it’s destiny.”

It’s funny that he spoke of destiny, because just before halftime there looked like there was going to be a cruel twist of it when Afif sent a brief scare through the crowd after remaining on the turf after going down without contact, with the stretcher called for to carry him off.

He would soon re-emerge, but the soreness remained as he was beaten to a ball into the box by Jordan’s leading light Musa Al-Taamari, with Mohammed Waad forced to stage a last-ditch intervention to deflect it away.

He was fine, staying out there as Jordan would refuse to bow in the face of adversity, something they have done all tournament. But alas for coach Hussein Ammouta, the magic that had come to define their run to the final in Doha didn’t have anything left to give in Lusail.

They would hurl numerous attacks forward in their attempt to get into the game before Al-Naimat’s leveller, improving in the second half but unable to get past the brick wall that was Qatari keeper Meshaal Barsham.

Trailing for much of the game, or attempting to capitalise on the momentum of their equaliser, they were forced to take the initiative and control of the ball, denied their free-flowing transition game and instead needed to work against a settled Qatari defence, who in turn could play in transition.

Jordan would end the game with 58% of the ball and 16 shots but with just six of them on target, as Qatar picked their moments and moved the ball into areas where they could win their spot kicks — the timing of which Ammouta’s admitted post-game came at the worst possible time for his squad, while refusing to take issue with any of their awarding.

Of course, to some extent, while Jordan was already a winner having advanced to this point, Qatar needed this win.

After their three straight defeats at a home World Cup, a lot of their reputation — the reputation of 2019 — rested on what they could do at home.

Now, perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from the 2023 Asian Cup is just how much Qatar bungled their preparations for the 2022 World Cup, their long overseas tours inadvertently setting them up to perform at a level so below what they should have been able to.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s increasing investment and moves to monopolise major events in the region also threaten to put them in the shade in the years ahead, even if a large number of the soft power, reputational laundering, economic, and infrastructural benefits of hosting major footballing events have already been banked.

Whatever happens, though, they’ll now always be back-to-back Asian champions. And Afif will always be one of the Asian Cup’s greatest ever.

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