Historic Asian Cup over in last 16 for ‘champions’ Palestine

For Jordan, pure joy and a shot at history. For Iraq, dejection.

For the rest of the continent, and indeed the world, the best game of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 so far came on Monday afternoon at the Khalifa International Stadium as Al-Nashama somehow came back from certain defeat to score two injury-time goals, beat Iraq 3-2 and progress to a quarterfinal against Tajikistan.

This second-round clash will live long in the memory, the goals will never be forgotten, the late, late drama will linger and so will one of the most controversial red cards in the history of the Asian Cup. 

First, the details. Yazan Al-Naimat put Jordan ahead on the stroke of half-time, a reward for a fine counter-attacking display that meant that, though Iraq had the better of the possession, they had no clear-cut chances.

But Saad Natiq headed home a corner midway through the second half to level the match. When Aymen Hussein put Iraq ahead with 14 minutes left with his sixth goal of the tournament, there only looked to be one winner inside a bouncing stadium.

But then came what was surely the turning point of the game.

Referee Alireza Faghani produced a second yellow for Hussein’s celebration, in which he replicated Jordan’s goal ceremony, sitting down on the turf and miming the action of eating.

The momentum shifted immediately. From then on, it was all Jordan.

The drama would come deep into stoppage time as Yazan Al-Arab bundled home a 95th-minute equalizer before a 25-yarder from Nizar Al-Rashdan proved the winner. It was a stunning finish to an epic game.

Of all the talking points, the biggest is the sending-off. If the Iraqi bench and the fans could not believe what had happened, neither could Hussein himself.

Perhaps the Iranian referee regarded the striker copying Jordan’s goal celebration as an inflammatory gesture, a time-wasting one, or both. It looked to be a heavy-handed decision and one that is going to be talked about for years. It changed everything. Nobody will ever know, but it is highly unlikely that Jordan would have scored twice in the final moments of the game if Iraq had 11 men on the pitch. 

Jordan won’t care too much about that. They are living proof that the build-up to tournaments does not matter too much, having ended 2023 with two draws and five defeats.

The preparation for the Asian Cup finished with a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Japan. Coach Hussein Ammouta was under pressure despite previously having a fine record elsewhere, winning the African Cup of Nations with his native Morocco in 2020, three years after he led Wydad AC to the African Champions League.

The only positive was, perhaps, that expectations were low going into the tournament.

Perhaps it was a little fortunate that Jordan started against Malaysia, one of the weaker teams in the tournament, and ran out 4-0 winners. It increased confidence, lifted pressure and generated momentum Then came a real test, that was almost passed, with the team minutes away from a famous win over South Korea, with only a late, late own goal turning victory into a draw. 

On Monday, they did to Iraq what Iraq had done to Japan in the group stage 2-1 win.

There was organization, intensity and an ability to get forward quickly and cause problems, with France-based winger Mousa Al-Taamari once again showing his trickery and talent. Jordan invited Iraq forward and then made use of the space left behind. Then, when time was running out at the end, they kept going, fighting and believing.

It is a painful turn of events for Iraq. The Lions of Mesopotamia deservedly beat tournament favorites Japan and won all three group games. When Hussein put the team ahead, it looked as if the miraculous triumph in 2007 could be replicated. All the stars seemed to be aligning — there was belief, talent and a striker who was in red-hot form just at the right time. Then came the red card and the rest is history that is going to be debated for years.

Iraq head home and Jordan go to the last eight and a tie with Tajikistan. The Central Asians, playing a first-ever knockout game, deservedly defeated the UAE on Sunday after a penalty shootout.

Jordan will be favorites in the game, though it would be wise not to underestimate an opponent that has nothing to lose. It offers, however, a great opportunity to make history and get past the quarterfinals for the first time ever. With coach Ammouta in place and the resilience and growing belief in the team, anything could happen. Iraq showed that in 2007, and now, 17 years later, it could be Jordan’s turn.