Qatar’s Qassim Burhan was adjudged the Best Goalkeeper of the tournament.
Qatar’s players celebrating after winning the 22nd Gulf Cup final against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh yesterday. PICTURE: Shemeer Rasheed
By Anil John
Qatar are the football kings of the Gulf. Ten years after their momentous Gulf Cup victory on home soil, Qatar made history in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last night by beating the hosts 2-1 to once again assert their supremacy at the regional level.
Almahdi Ali and Boualem Khoukhi were the heroes as the Al Annabi rallied from a goal down to leave the home supporters stunned at the near full-capacity King Fahd international Stadium.
For a couple of thousand Qatari fans who had flown or driven to the Saudi capital, however, it was an occasion to celebrate. For a change, it was them who were making all the noise.
The moment the referee signalled the end of play, Qatar coach Djamel Belmadi dropped down to the ground in prayer. Seconds later, the whole squad joined him to celebrate the occasion. Some appeared dazed, others relieved, but the all-pervading sense was that of joy brought on by the realisation that they had broken their decade-long Gulf Cup jinx. Many had tears in their eyes.
It was in 2004 that Qatar had won the Gulf Cup last when they beat Oman in the final in Doha. That win came 12 years after their first Gulf cup title, in 1992, also in Doha. Yesterday’s win was the third time they had claimed the trophy.
But this time the victory had an added edge to it – because it was a rare occasion Qatar had won a title on foreign soil, and that too against a country which boasts of more successes at the Asian level and have also qualified for the World Cup on a few occasions.
Qatar made a patchy start to the tournament but peaked nicely towards the end, with Belmadi stressing more on attack. The strategy fetched dividends when they beat Oman in the semi-final. It also served the team well yesterday.
Yet it was Saudi Arabia who took the lead - Saud Khairi scoring off a routine header from a corner kick. Coming as it did in the 14th minute, the hosts were supposed to defend it stoutly, but less than two minutes later Qatar struck, almost in similar style.
The Saudis thought they had deployed their defence properly, but the corner taken by Hassan al-Haydos took the desired trajectory and dipped in just perfectly for Ali who timed his jump nicely to head the ball into the far corner.
The equaliser took the sting off Saudi Arabia’s game. It was almost as if they thought it was not supposed to happen. What followed thereafter was lengthy spells of patchy play, with a few sparks of ingenuity thrown in here and there, not to speak of missed chances.
The Saudis could have gone ahead a few minutes later but Salem al-Dosari fluffed a golden chance by going wide from close with goalkeeper Qassim Burhan completely at his mercy. In the 42nd minute al-Haydos found himself in the clear but hurried with his shot and fired wide.
The match continued to progress in a lacklustre fashion after half time, with no team managing a clear advantage. But off a somewhat mundane free-kick in the 58th minute, the ball lobbed off the defence and Khoukhi blasted the volley past Saudi goalkeeper Waleed Abdulla.
The Saudis were left stunned. Their coach Lopez Caro appeared nervous and replaced their talisman Nasser al-Shamrani with Naif Hazazi in the 71st minute. Qatar brought in Ismail Mohamed for Meshaal Abdulla. Ismail almost scored Qatar’s third goal, but the ball sailed over the bar.
Coach Belmadi struggled to contain his emotions after the match.
“Our hard work has paid off,” the Algerian said. “Winning the Gulf Cup is a matter of great pride for any team and I am glad it was Qatar today.”
Belmadi had taken over as coach of the national team less than a year away with an eye on the Gulf Cup as well as the Asian Cup to be played in January.
“The Gulf Cup is now ours, but after this we can’t afford to relax. We have the tougher Asian Cup coming up in Australia and after the celebrations are done and dusted with, we will hit the ground hard in preparation.”
Qatar Football Association president Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani was thrilled by the team’s success.
“We had total confidence in the team and the coach, and they delivered the Gulf Cup for us in style,” he said. “The Gulf Cup win is a matter of great honour and pride for us.”
The team celebrated into the night, but there would be more of it when they arrive back in Doha today. And why not? After all, it has been 10 long years since they last experienced that joy.
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