And so after 51 matches, 130 goals and a month-long tournament in the Gulf, Asia has a new champion: Qatar, the hosts of the 2022 World Cup. In the final, the marauding maroons outplayed Japan, the record four-time champions, with lethal attacking, fine positional play and solid defending, traits that had the Qatari outwit Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iraq and the hosts United Arab Emirates " teams considered as heavyweights in Asian football " en route to the final.
Under the auspices of Spanish coach Felix Sanchez, a longtime QFA employee, Qatar's enterprising play featured the hallmarks of a modern team with a flexible 4-3-3 formation, swift transitions and pressing, resulting in a dynamism that often bamboozled opponents and left them second best to the ball. Qatar racked up sixteen goals without conceding before the final, overcoming a hostile environment in the UAE, linked to the longstanding Saudi-led blockade against the Gulf state.
In Al Ain, they faced a band of North Korean cheerleaders in an all but empty stadium and in the 'Blockade Derby' the partisan fans, some of whom had been handed free tickets by the Saudi FA, booed the Qatari national anthem and the Qatari players whenever they encroached Saudi territory. The controversy endured: in the last four, Qatar were pelted by shoes and other objects from the stands as they tore Alberto Zaccheroni's team to shreds 4-0. Indeed, Al Annabi's response was simple: in the face of hostility they kept scoring and scoring.
Against Japan, they rippled the net thrice to win a maiden continental title on merit, but the exploits of tournament top scorer Ali Almoez " his record-breaking overhead kick in the first half was of a remarkable craftsmanship " and provider Akrim Afif didn't come in isolation. Yes, Qatar's win was a surprise, but hardly a Maroon fairytale: Qatar poured in an awful lot of millions to build this team from scratch, using the state-of-the-art Aspire Academy in Doha, feeder clubs in Europe, foreign expertise and possibly the largest-ever scouting exercise to create a team befitting a World Cup host.
Today, Qatar belong to the Asian elite. They have bridged the gap with the traditional Asian heavyweights since FIFA, on a frosty December afternoon in 2010, awarded the World Cup to Qatar. By beating Japan, they single-handedly upended the long-established hierarchy on the continent, but this tournament very much remained the playground of the great and the good. Alongside Qatar, Vietnam was the only country outside of Asia's top ten to make the last eight. The Vietnamese enjoyed a stellar 2018 and with investment in youth, discipline under coach Park Hang-seo and frantic counterattacking. They had all the ingredients for a successful run in the UAE.
Jordan and India, to an extent, surprised early on, and the likes of Philippines, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan were not always outplayed, but the group stages were still a slow burner with predictable results, dead rubbers and the main powers, except for the sluggish hosts, left typically unopposed. The Kyrgyz team, at their maiden finals, played a five-men back line, but unlike North Korea, Yemen and other defensive outfits, were less conservative going forward. They were rewarded with a berth in the last sixteen when the Asian Cup jolted into life. They pushed the United Arab Emirates to extra time before losing 3-2.
Were the exploits of Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam among others proof of a more level-playing field in Asia? The revamped qualifiers for the tournament improved Asian teams across the board and the finals offered glimpses of what developing football nations could become in the future, but at the same time the new format exposed some familiar deficiencies and drawbacks of the Asian game. A single enlarged tournament every four years cannot alter the entire fabric and development of countries.
That requires a prolonged and calibrated approach to the game at national level. Qatar's swashbuckling triumph corroborates an integrated strategy. They, however, remain the exception in Asia, not the norm. Qatar's footballing prowess at these finals can't be questioned: Sanchez's eleven were undoubtedly the best, even if some favourites underwhelmed, but to portray Al Annabi's victory as a fairy story would be wrong. It was a case of assembling a world-class team (Sanchez first had Akrim Afif, Salem Al Hajri and Tarek Salman in his team in 2010), nurturing the players, planning their development and progress, and, perhaps, above all, of investing extraordinary financial resources to compete with Asia's best, proving once more that success, not just in life, but in football can be bought. Qatar may well have taken that thesis to a new extreme.