Vie. Feb 23rd, 2024

AL KHOR, Qatar — There are never any good goals to concede, but the goal that set the scene for Palestine’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Qatar and their elimination from the Asian Cup in the round of 16 felt a particularly cruel one.

In the seventh minute tacked onto the end of the first half, Qatar executed a move straight from the training pitch: Akram Afif driving a low corner towards the penalty spot that met the first-time finish of Hassan Al-Haydos, who had run his marker straight into a teammate as he looped back around from the back post.

It would have been an instantly familiar site for any fans of basketball watching, essentially a pick-and-roll move given life at Al Bayt Stadium. The Qatari skipper’s shot took a wicked deflection on the way through but all that did was take it away from keeper Rami Hamadeh, who watched on with despair, an arm meekly raised in the air, as it sailed over him and into the back of the net.

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With what proved to be the final kick of the opening stanza, the host nation and defending champions wiped away a Palestinian lead deservedly taken in the 37th minute when Oday Dabbagh — the star boy of the Lions of Canaan — pounced on a poor back pass from Bassam Al-Rawi, cut one way and then the other to open up an angle and drilled a brilliantly placed shot beyond keeper Meshaal Barsham and inside the far post.

It was the first goal that Qatar had conceded in just over 300 minutes of football at this tournament — Tintín Márquez’s side progressed through the group stages with three wins and their copybook unblemished — and the first that they had conceded to Palestine in over 20 years — since a 2-1 win at the 2003 Asian Cup.

Most of all, it was one that the Palestinians very much deserved.

Whereas it was the Qataris that were monopolising possession — ending the opening stanza with a remarkable 74% of the ball — it was their opponents that had created every chance of note until Al-Haydos converted his side’s first shot on target for the match.

Tamer Seyam had found Amid Mahajna in acres of space to force Barsham into a diving save in the 19th minute. Dabbagh had pounced on the second phase of a long goal kick that bounced through to the Qatari penalty area and shot wide five minutes later. And Zaid Qunbar laid the ball off for Mahmoud Abu Warda to lash an outside-of-the-boot effort straight at Barsham, who was left with little choice but to palm it away.

Qatar were playing poorly. They may have entered the game on a remarkable 10-game winning run, one that has now stretched to 11 with this win, but they were looking flat and uninspiring when they moved the ball forward, struggling to utilise the centre of the pitch and butting up against a disciplined and determined defence sent out by coach Makram Daboub.

But perhaps as champions are wont to do, they found a goal by any means necessary, working a set piece and a deflection to ensure they wouldn’t head into the main break in a deficit. Conversely, for underdogs like Palestine, there was every chance in the world that such a moment would beget more ill fortune, their resistance deflated by the knowledge that it would have only taken one more second, one more effort, to see things into the break.

And so it came to pass just two minutes into the second stanza when Afif slid a pass through the defensive line for a piercing run of Almoez Ali and the striker was brought down by Hamadeh as he attempted to skip beyond the charging gloveman.

Palestine protested but it was a clear penalty, one duly converted by Afif moments later after a winding, stuttering step-run up that sent his direct opponent in the goal the wrong way. It was the fourth goal of the Al Sadd superstar’s tournament and the 17th goal contribution across an Asian Cup career just over one-and-a-half tournaments old.

Five minutes later, Seyam was down on the turf holding his ankle. He gamely attempted to continue but it soon proved too much for the PT Prachuap attacker as he was forced off the ground in the 57th minute.

Put up for official pre-match press conference duties alongside Daboub the day prior, he had spoken about how Monday evening’s game would be a celebration between brothers, and of how the 63,753 fans that would be in the ground would be supporting two sides on the evening.

Supporters, players, coaches, and associated teams of other sides at the Asian Cup have been free and vocal in their support of the Palestine team, who are competing against the ongoing backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Multiple members of the squad have reportedly lost loved ones during the conflict, and others have family still trapped in Gaza. The team has been forced to base themselves outside of their traditional home of the West Bank ever since the conflict broke out when Islamist militants linked to Hamas attacked southern Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7 — training, matches, and preparing for this tournament overseas while away from family and loved ones.

Despite this, they were still able to mark a series of historic achievements in Doha, recording their nation’s first-ever win on a continental level by defeating Hong Kong in their final group game — a result that sent them through to their first-ever knockout stages.

Having brought joy to their people, something they oft repeated as a main goal of theirs at this tournament, Daboub had said on Sunday that the pressure was now off his team and that they could simply focus on trying to get the result.

But Seyam had also ended the press conference with a strong declaration, one that spoke to the determination and competitiveness of this team of history-makers. «We need the win more than any team in this tournament.»

Ultimately, they could not reach that point. Qatar will return to the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday to take on the winner of Uzbekistan and Thailand’s clash on Tuesday evening.

«We came here with one goal, to make our people happy. And we did it. In this match we wanted to win, we wanted to make our people happy again, happy all the time. Qatar won in the end, we did what we could to win. We’re proud of ourselves.

«I want the war to end. It does bad things to our people. They have to be strong all the time, like now.

«The message to the world is that we are here, we did very well, see what we can do in our lives. We want to live safely. That is the message.»

«We came here with one goal, to make our people happy. And we did it,» Palestine keeper Hamadeh said. «In this match we wanted to win, we wanted to make our people happy again, happy all the time. Qatar won in the end, we did what we could to win. We’re proud of ourselves.

«I want the war to end. It does bad things to our people. They have to be strong all the time, like now.

«The message to the world is that we are here, we did very well, see what we can do in our lives. We want to live safely. That is the message.»

As the final whistle sounded on Monday, some players rushed referee Ma Ning, complaining about a call that they felt had prevented them from launching one final attack in search of a desperate leveller. Others slumped to the turf, their campaign now over.

Yet as pulses calmed and gathered on the surface, making their way over to a collection of Palestinian supporters and flags around the goal, the stadium rose with one final cheer for Seyam and company.

One final show of respect for a team that entered the Asian Cup under almost impossible circumstances but ended it as history makers.



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