Asian Cup 2019

Copa America next for champs Qatar

Qatar's players with the trophy after beating Japan 3-1 in the Asian Cup final at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Friday. Their head coach Felix Sanchez led Qatar to their first Asian Under-19 title in 2014. They also reached the U-23
Qatar's players with the trophy after beating Japan 3-1 in the Asian Cup final at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Friday. Their head coach Felix Sanchez led Qatar to their first Asian Under-19 title in 2014. They also reached the U-23 semi-finals last year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Asian Cup runners-up Japan are also guests at South American tourney starting in June

ABU DHABI • Coming from nowhere to win the Asian Cup is just part of Qatar's long road to their home World Cup in 2022.

Felix Sanchez's team are keeping their expectations in check for the Copa America, the South American championship where they are guests along with Japan beginning in June, despite snatching the Asian title as a lowly world No. 93 side.

But it is hard to overstate their feat - from zero points in Australia 2015 to their first continental title in record-breaking style.

It also means that resource-rich Qatar are finally making headlines for the right reasons after the turbulence that surrounded their successful bid to host world football's showpiece.

Almoez Ali's bicycle-kick opener epitomised a stylish triumph, 3-1 over Japan in the final, as he broke Ali Daei's 23-year-old mark for goals at a single Cup.

"I'm sorry for breaking Mr Daei's record," a humble Ali said after scoring his ninth of the Cup.

"I expected to score goals, maybe three or four, but I didn't expect to score nine."

Fittingly for a team who have punched above their weight, Akram Afif struck a boxing-style pose as he celebrated the late penalty to end Japan's resistance, after they briefly threatened a comeback when 2-1 down.

Qatar conceded just one goal all tournament and scored 19, winning all seven games and beating other former champions Saudi Arabia, Iraq and South Korea.

They also thrived in a hostile environment in the United Arab Emirates owing to the ongoing Gulf blockade, with their fans largely barred from visiting and home spectators pelting them with shoes and bottles in the semi-finals.

The title raised the beguiling possibility of Qatar being crowned champions of both Asia and South America, although they will first have to get out of a group comprising Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay.

But Ali said the Copa is about continuing the methodical approach that has already paid dividends.

"We're not expecting to win, but just to learn - because, after the World Cup, the Copa is the biggest competition in the world," he said.

"Asia is the weakest continent for football so, in the Copa America, we will learn more. This will help us have a better performance in 2022."

After spending many millions of petrodollars on their world-class Aspire Academy, and scouring the world for top coaches, Qatar are beginning to recoup their investment. Head coach Sanchez led Qatar to their first Asian Under-19 title in 2014 and they reached the U-23 semi-finals last year, when Ali was also top scorer.

Afif chalked up a tournament-record 10 assists and formed a devastating partnership with Ali, underlining Qatar's cohesion in both defence and attack after years spent playing together.

"We've been together seven years so I know exactly where Akram will be, where he will pass and he always knows what to expect from me," Ali said. "We get along very well together too."

Qatar's win sparked jubilant scenes back home but, for the team, bigger goals now lie ahead.

"This is one step more to continue developing the team, to play another tournament in the summer and to be ready in 2022 to represent Qatar," Sanchez said.

For Japan, captain Maya Yoshida was aggrieved about Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov's decision to award a penalty for handball against him after a video review.

"That third goal was really tough to accept," he said. "It killed the game. If that's a penalty, I probably have to jump without using my arms. It was accidental but that was the referee's decision."

He added: "But they played well and deserve to be champions.

"No excuses, we move on."

The Samurai Blue are grouped with Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador for the Copa. But he hopes the setback will help them make a breakthrough beyond the last 16 at the World Cup.

He said: "Our first target is, of course, to qualify and then get over the wall at which we were stopped last time, the round of 16. That is an objective for Japanese football."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 03, 2019, with the headline 'Copa America next for champs Qatar'. Print Edition | Subscribe