Jordan hope for another twist in stirring Asian Cup tale ahead of South Korea semi-final

Jurgen Klinsmann's side will provide ultimate test for team that had never previously gone beyond last eight

Yazan Al Naimat celebrates after Jordan's Asian Cup quarter-final win over Tajikistan. Getty Images
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Perhaps overshadowed by Palestine’s incredible effort in emerging from the groups, or Tajikistan’s rousing run to the last eight on debut, Jordan’s Asian Cup history-makers deserve considerable credit for their Qatar campaign, too.

Never before beyond the quarter-finals of the continent’s marquee event, they stand one match from the showpiece, two from winning the whole thing.

Among the four finest teams at this 24-nation Asian Cup, they go into Tuesday’s semi-final against South Korea as the lowest-ranked side remaining, comfortably so, at 87th.

Unlike the Koreans (23), or Iran (21) or Japan (17) who contest the other semi-final on Wednesday, Jordan have never lifted the trophy. To make it to the present point, even in a tournament of underdogs and upsets, has been remarkable.

At the outset of the rescheduled 2023 edition, Jordan were a decent shout, granted, to advance from a Group E containing South Korea, Bahrain and Malaysia, even if that meant as one of the phase’s best third-placed sides.

Yet the sense was that the last 16 would be their ceiling. They didn’t arrive in Doha in the best of form. In November, Jordan began qualification for the 2026 World Cup with a draw in Tajikistan – that can now be considered a commendable return – and home defeat to Saudi Arabia.

Only days before the Asian Cup kicked off, they were beaten 6-1 by Japan, admittedly favourites for the title, in a supposed friendly. It extended a winless sequence to eight.

But in Qatar, Jordan found their groove. They opened with a 4-0 victory against Malaysia, then were minutes and an own goal away from a famous win against South Korea.

In injury-time, defender Yazan Al Arab deflected the ball into his net and Jurgen Klinsmann’s side escaped with a 2-2 draw. The 1-0 defeat in the group finale to Bahrain, with progression secure and the team heavily rotated, did not therefore rank as much of a setback.

Again, though, the first knockout stage felt their limit. Two-one down until the 95th minute against Iraq, reigning Arabian Gulf champions and conquerors of Japan in the groups, Jordan rallied. They scored twice in quick succession, rendering redundant their much-fancied rivals.

Jordan were through, into a quarter-final, to equal their previous best in the Asian Cup, from 2004 and 2011. They would go one better: a 1-0 triumph against Tajikistan was without frills, but it was enough. Jordan had created history.

The record-setting route to South Korea on Tuesday has been built, in part, on those old Jordanian dependables: they are dogged, determined, defensively robust. But this team are dynamic, also.

Hussein Ammouta, the understated yet hugely respected Moroccan manager, has created a side lightning fast on the counter, its collection of mobile forwards a handful for any opponent.

On Monday, when fronting the pre-match press conference, Klinsmann said of Jordan that they possess “very special players who can hurt you”. He should know; that 2-2 draw, very nearly a catastrophic defeat for the under-pressure German, played out little more than two weeks previously, still fresh in the memory.

In referencing Jordan’s standout footballers, Klinsmann will no doubt have had Mousa Al Taamari at the forefront of his mind. The skilled Montpellier winger remains relatively underrated; he is an outlier, a player from the Gulf who not only chose the challenge of furthering his career in Europe, but excelled as well.

Al Taamari shone in Cyprus, then in Belgium, and now in France. He scored twice in Qatar against Malaysia. Fortunately for Jordan, the injury he sustained during Friday's quarter-final has not ruled him out of arguably the biggest match in his country’s history.

Al Taamari’s availability has been offset, however, by the suspensions of two key players in defender Salem Al Ajalin and striker Ali Olwan. But South Korea will be missing one of their crucial cogs, too: Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae, named Serie A’s best defender last season by dint of helping Napoli to the Scudetto, picked up a yellow card in the last-gasp win against Australia.

With Asian superstar Son Heung-min, Paris Saint-Germain’s Lee Kang-in and Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang Hee-chan still to call upon, South Korea are rightly favourites, even if they had taken a more arduous road than Jordan.

They required penalties to see off Saudi Arabia, then extra-time against Australia. Contesting a fifth semi-final in seven editions, the two-time champions seek to snap a 64-year wait for the trophy.

That can only amplify the pressure, even if on Monday both Klinsmann and midfielder Hwang In-beom spoke of being emboldened by expectation.

Jordan, in contrast, have no such burden. Unbound by Ammouta, and embellished by Al Taamari’s talent, a first Asian Cup semi-final brings with it the possibility of what may be.

Already a success in Qatar, maybe another of the tournament’s stirring tales has some way to go yet.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 2:43 AM