The hearts pounded, the pulses raced and the nerves jangled. At the end of it all, there was a collective exhalation of relief. The crowd had been involved in the action for a gripping 70 minutes, and although everybody fancied some more of the same, nobody knew how they could have handled it.
In case you are wondering what this is all about, relax. We are talking of the handball final at the Asian Games where Qatar won the gold medal for the second straight time beating Bahrain 32-27 after extra time and, in the process, underlined their status as the undisputed kings of the sport in the continent.
But what a match it was! A true classic in which Bahrain held the upper hand for the most part and had almost snatched the title from Qatar before a masterstroke from coach Valero Rivera altered its course.
With just 27 seconds to go for the buzzer and Bahrain leading 25-24 and seemingly on their way to the title– some of their players were already in a celebratory mood – Rivera suddenly calls a timeout.
Gamesmanship? Maybe. All legal though.
A few seconds of “strategising” ensues. The players are all ears with the furiously animated Spaniard working himself up into a febrile fit, sweating, shouting, probably even swearing. What plan could he have at this stage of the match?
It was simple: break Bahrain’s momentum and plant a few doubts in their heads.
The seconds tick by. Qatar are desperately looking for an opening, passing the ball around with the players changing positions quickly. The Bahrainis are edgy but holding firm. Not for long though.
In handball matches of such intensity, pace and class, nobody can tell who will come up with a game-changing play. In this case, it came from Ali Yousef, lurking, somewhat casually, on the left flank.
All of a sudden, the Bahraini defence anticipates something coming. But they are just a fraction late in reacting as Ali suddenly twists and rises to send the ball rocketing into the net from six metres. It’s 25-25, and 10 seconds later, it’s time for 10 minutes of extra time.
The Bahrainis are crestfallen at being taken the distance, but soon recover their confidence by striking first, with Hussein al-Sayyad drilling the ball past goalkeeper Danijel Saric in the 33rd second as Qatar fall behind by one goal.
However, the early setback only spurs Qatar to tighten up things, with the result that Bahrain could not add to their tally for a whopping seven minutes.
But by then Anis Zouaoui, Bertrand Roine, Marzo Frankis and Ali Yousef had toyed with the Bahrain defence to help themselves to goals as Qatar took a near-invincible 30-26 lead with just a little over five minutes remaining.
Bahrain had everything to do at this stage but with the Qataris standing like a rock, there was precious little hope for them.
Eventually they managed one more goal though, through Ali Merza, but only a little over three minutes remained after that, leaving them with the near-impossible task of conjuring up a miracle.
And with Rafael Capote and Ahmed Madadi adding a goal each with just one minute on the clock, Qatar had sealed one of their most memorable wins in their sporting history, sparking celebration in the stands where Qatar Olympic Committee president HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad al-Thani and other top officials were present.
Zouaoui top-scored for Qatar with seven goals, while Frankis had six and Roine five. Capote and Ali chipped in with four each.
For the Bahrainis, many of whom were in tears after the match, al-Sayyad excelled with five goals, while Bilal Askani and Merza had four apiece.
“It was a tough match but all credit to the boys. They were brilliant when it really came to the crunch. Our second straight Asian Games gold medal proves we are the best team in the continent,” Qatar captain Abdulrazzaq Murad said.
He added: “We were not tense we were playing Bahrain. For us, it was like a normal final. We were not bothered by anything else. Our only concern was winning the gold.”
Coach Rivera was also ecstatic, saying it was a final that would go down as one of the best handball matches in history.
“It was a thrilling match. It could have gone either way but once we got into extra time, we gave Bahrain no chance. All the credit goes to the players for the hard work they put in. Of course, the support staff saw to it that everybody was physically and mentally fit,” the Spaniard said.
Qatar’s star player Roine added: “It was a big game, and Bahrain is a strong team. I am sad for them, but we are now the kings of Asia in handball.”
Meanwhile, South Korea won the women’s handball gold with a 29-23 win over China.
The top scorer in the final was Xiaomei Liu from China with 14 goals, while Jung Yura scored eight for the winners.
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