Jordan and Qatar put friendship aside to battle for Asian football's ultimate prize

Stakes couldn't be higher in all-Arab final between hosts and holders and tournament's surprise package

Jordan's head coach Lhoussanine Ammouta, left, and Qatar's head coach Bartolome Marquez shake hands in front of the Asian Cup trophy ahead of a press conference in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Feb.  9, 2024.  Jordan will play Qatar on Saturday for the soccer final of the Asian Cup.  (AP Photo / Thanassis Stavrakis)
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Hussein Ammouta spoke of the final having a familial feel, despite the significant stakes at play.

“The Qatari team have good players,” he said on Friday, less than 36 hours before his Jordan side meet the current continental champions, on their own patch, for Asia’s premier prize.

“I know them from when they were young. When I was in Al Sadd, I considered them my little brothers, so it will be a family match tomorrow.”

Indeed, it’s easy to understand. As Ammouta referenced, he shares more of an affiliation than most with Saturday’s opponents.

A Moroccan midfielder with a modest playing career until arriving in Qatar in 1997, Ammouta lifted every major domestic title during four years with capital club Al Sadd. He departed in 2001 but remained in the city, adding a second top-flight title with Qatar SC two years later.

Returning to Sadd in 2011, initially as technical director, Ammouta transitioned to the dugout to guide his former employers to Qatar Stars League success a decade after his last championship trophy as a player.

It snapped a six-year drought for Sadd, the country’s most decorated club. As a result, Ammouta was voted the competition's 2012/13 manager of the season.

He would leave in 2015, but not before twice leading his side to the Emir of Qatar Cup, the country’s most prestigious cup competition, and the 2014 Sheikh Jassim Cup.

All-Arab final set as Qatar beat Iran in Asian Cup

All-Arab final set as Qatar beat Iran in Asian Cup

So, it came as no real surprise on Friday when, a day out from the most high-profile match in Jordan’s history and the preeminent fixture in Asian football, at Qatar’s glittering Lusail Stadium, that Ammouta went on something of a charm offensive.

“The Qatar Football Association is behind the success,” he said of the holders, through to a second successive final. “Since I was with Al Sadd, I have seen this investment in Qatari football. It is a big investment: technical, mental, financial.

“And it has been very crucial, giving huge potential. It’s difficult to find a team that wins the cup and then defends the championship in the next edition [Japan were the most recent to do it, in 2004].”

Ammouta, currently the frontrunner for manager of the tournament, would then pay tribute to the Qatar FA for organising for his team a pair of friendly matches in Doha before the Asian Cup, against Qatar – Jordan won 2-1 – and Japan.

Jordan fans celebrate reaching Asian cup final

Jordan fans celebrate reaching Asian cup final

“They have paid for all the expenses, the accommodation, the transportation,” Ammouta said. “So, we would like to thank the Qatar Football Association, because they have helped us with the preparation.”

Having emphasised his familiarity with some of the opposition squad, Ammouta concluded: “It’s an Arab final, and also a good Asian final.”

Sitting alongside his manager, Jordan defender Salem Al Ajalin underlined the significance of the showpiece, saying: “Hopefully tomorrow it will be a match of an excellent performance for all the Arab world.”

Absolutely, Saturday’s contest represents the first all-Arab Asian Cup final since 2007, when against the backdrop of political turmoil, Iraq shocked Saudi Arabia to capture the trophy.

Although that remains possibly the competition’s standout moment, Jordan’s present campaign has taken on an only slightly less-diminished stature.

Ranked 87th in the world, and 29 spots below Qatar, until this month they had never before been beyond the quarter-finals.

But here they are. Ninety minutes and potentially a little more from being crowned the continent’s best. Yet, for all the pleasantries on the eve of the match, come Saturday, Qatar are certainly not going to play the overly hospitable host.

On Friday, manager “Tintin” Marquez Lopez confirmed as much. Not long after he and captain Hassan Al Haydos posed with Ammouta and Al Ajalin for ceremonial photos beside the Asian Cup trophy – Ammouta and Al Haydos shared a particularly warm embrace having spent time together at Al Sadd – the Spaniard was asked about the convivial connection linking the teams.

"It's a match between two brotherly countries, but there should be competition,” Lopez said. “Even between brothers there is competition; I might play tennis with my brother, but in the end each one of us would like to win.

“So, we will play this game as a football match. We know the ties between both countries are very strong.

“But at the end we will compete in this match, we will play hard, with respect of course."

Tellingly, Lopez added: “In Spain, there is a saying: second place is first among losers. We're not satisfied with second; we will play for the trophy.

"We want to be the best in the continent.”

And that’s what it comes down to. The opportunity to etch names in history, either as back-to-back winners, or one of the all-time unexpected Asian Cup champions.

Come Saturday at 6pm local time (7pm UAE), any familial feeling will give way to pure sporting friction. For all the niceties, and no matter what has been said, Ammouta will be out to dull his Doha relationships enough to disappear with Asian football’s ultimate accolade.

Updated: February 10, 2024, 6:24 AM