• Soccer

The Star Names Have Exited the Asian Cup and Left the Tournament with an Unexpected Final

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
Qatar’s Almoez Ali, right, celebrates with teammates after winning the match during the Asian Cup semifinal soccer match between Qatar and Iran at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — An Asian Cup that began with stars from across Europe’s top leagues has delivered an unexpected final.

On Saturday, at the spectacular Lusail Stadium, host and defending champion Qatar will play Jordan, with neither team featuring players of wide renown.

Premier League players like Son Heung-min (Tottenham) and Wataru Endo (Liverpool) have departed. Likewise Paris Saint-Germain’s Lee Kang-in and Roma’s on-loan forward Sardar Azmoun.

It’s the same story with notable coaches Roberto Mancini (Saudi Arabia) and South Korea’s Jurgen Klinsmann in a tournament that has cut big names down to size.

“The tournament shows football is evolving and developing,” Qatar coach Marquez Lopez said. “Every day there are more demands on Asian football. The upcoming generation can play beautiful football.”

Four-time champion Japan was the pre-tournament favorite, with South Korea and Australia also tipped as potential winners.

Despite being the defending champion, Qatar was not among the top picks to triumph in its own country.

Perhaps that was because of memories of the World Cup when it was eliminated from its own tournament after three-straight defeats in the group stage.

Just over a year on and it feels like a very different team.

“A month before the tournament no one expected us to reach the final. No one thought we would be delivering this performance,” Qatar captain Hassan Al-Haydos said. “Being here. Sitting here, talking here. This is my response. I’m playing in the final.”

While the quality of the Asian Cup cannot rival the World Cup, the improvement in Qatar is still unexpected. Marquez’s team has outperformed Japan, South Korea and Australia, which all advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup. It has played with an attacking freedom that was not evident when it hosted soccer’s biggest tournament.

While that could partly be put down to Lopez, who was only hired in December, former coach Felix Sanchez had won the previous edition of the Asian Cup before the World Cup disappointment.

Qatar’s Akram Afif has arguably been the standout player of the Asian Cup.

He spoke earlier in the tournament of his wish to return to Europe after failing to make an impact in spells in Spain and Belgium before moving to Al Sadd in his homeland. He has likely improved his chances with five goals and some thrilling performances to help carry his country to the final.

Of the two finalists, Jordan is the only team to include a player currently playing in Europe — Montpellier’s Mousa Tamari. All of Qatar’s players are home-based.

Despite this, Jordan coach Hussein Ammouta is encouraged by the standard of players on display in the tournament.

“Asian football is developing so much and producing high quality players wanted by big European teams,” he said. “Every country would like those good players who can contribute to the national team and find their way to big European leagues.”

Jordan beat South Korea in the semifinals and is playing in its first Asian Cup final, having never previously advanced beyond the quarterfinals.

Qatar won the trophy for the first time in 2019 and is one game away from back-to-back titles.

The success of both teams points to a triumph of the collective over individual star appeal.

“I’ve said more than once the results of the team are because of a collaboration. Everyone is very committed and disciplined,” Ammouta said.

Having taken Qatar to the brink of another Asian Cup title, Spanish coach Lopez has urged his team to make one final push.

“In Spain we have a saying that the second place is the first loser,” he said. “We want to be the best in the Asian continent.”