Qatar won its first major soccer title by beating four-time champion Japan 3-1 in the Asian Cup final on Friday, completing an improbable run to glory for the Gulf nation as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. After upsetting one of the tournament favorites, players wrapped themselves in Qatari flags in a display of patriotic furor that will have resonated far beyond the field in Abu Dhabi.
Since joining other Arab countries in cutting ties with Doha in 2017, the United Arab Emirates warned residents that expressing sympathy for Qatar could lead to fines and imprisonment. The UAE is among a quartet of nations accusing its regional foe of supporting extremists, which Qatar denies.
There was even an attempt by the UAE to get Qatar disqualified after losing their semifinal. Tournament organizers confirmed only hours before the final they dismissed a challenge by the UAE against the eligibility of two Qatar players who were born outside Qatar.
One of them, Almoez Ali, scored the opening goal against Japan in the 12th minute with an audacious overhead kick. That gave him an all-time tournament record nine goals. Abdulaziz Hatem doubled Qatar’s lead with a curling strike in the 27th.
While Qatar conceded its first goal of the tournament in its seventh game when Takumi Minamino netted in the 69th, Akram Afif restored the two-goal cushion in the 83rd from the penalty spot.
The result confounded the gulf in the FIFA rankings, with Qatar at 93 and Japan at 50.
Qatar scored 19 goals and conceded only once in winning all seven games in the UAE. It will give Qatar renewed hope of being able to compete against the globe’s best teams when it qualifies for the first time for the World Cup as hosts in 2022.