From a record-breaking Qatar forward born who just couldn’t stop scoring to a reluctant Kyrgyz sex symbol, AFP takes a look at five players who lit up the Asian Cup:
– Float like a butterfly –
Qatar’s Almoez Ali scored an eye-popping record nine goals at a single Asian Cup, surpassing Iran legend Ali Daei’s tally of eight in 1996 with a wonder strike in Abu Dhabi that sparked a 3-1 upset over Japan in the final.
The baby-faced striker had plastic bottles and shoes pelted at him after scoring in Qatar’s 4-0 semi-final victory over hosts UAE, but had the last laugh as the 2022 World Cup hosts went on to lift the Asian Cup for the first time.
The Sudan-born Ali had been under investigation by tournament organisers after Emirati football officials lodged a protest over his eligibility. He was cleared to play in the final hours before kickoff and scored an outrageous overhead kick before walking off with the player of the tournament award for good measure.
– Saints and sinners –
Japan captain Maya Yoshida was the rock at the heart of Japan’s run to the Asian Cup final with his coolness under pressure and no-nonsense approach.
The Southampton defender also won plaudits — and a round of applause from journalists — after calling for organisers to improve refereeing standards and exert more control over the off-field controversies that dogged the tournament.
But the tournament ended in heartbreak for Yoshida, who ironically conceded a VAR-assisted penalty that gifted Qatar their third goal and effectively ended Japan’s resistance in the final.
– Lux, because he’s worth it –
A little-known footballer from Kyrgyzstan became an instant sex symbol in the ex-Soviet republic after plundering a hat-trick against the Philippines to fire the White Falcons into the last 16 on their tournament debut.
The 29-year-old heart-throb Vitalij Lux, with the James Dean film-star looks and a name that sounds like a posh shampoo, admitted he was a little bemused by all the sudden attention.
Team officials revealed that Lux was a smash hit with the ladies back in Kyrgyzstan — but the bashful hunk insisted he would rather hide out in his hotel than get the David Beckham treatment.
– ‘Iranian Messi’ –
Mercurial Iran striker Sardar Azmoun flounced away from the national team after last year’s World Cup, upset with the abuse he had suffered from Iranian fans.
Coaxed back by coach Carlos Queiroz for the Asian Cup, the 24-year-old Rubin Kazan forward — dubbed the “Iranian Messi” — quickly rediscovered his mojo, scoring four goals before the tournament favourites were derailed by Japan in the semi-finals.
Azmoun, reportedly a target for Premier League club Wolves, cut a forlorn figure in a 3-0 defeat and was lucky not to be sent off for a petulant slap on a Japanese defender in a bitter end to an Asian Cup that had promised so much for Iran.
– All hands on deckchairs –
Though statistics suggest Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb was one of the tournament’s most underemployed players, he quietly set a record six clean sheets at a single Asian Cup as the 2022 World Cup hosts stormed into the final.
While Al-Sheeb had the deckchairs out for much of the time behind a defence boasting Asian footballer of the year Abdelkarim Hassan and faced only 11 shots on target, he showed cat-like reflexes when called upon — notably with two superb saves during Qatar’s semi-final win over UAE.
As Qatar beat three former champions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Son Heung-min’s South Korea without ever looking seriously stretched, Al-Sheeb provided an immovable last line of defence for the tournament’s shock winners and unsurprisingly was voted best goalkeeper.