Education City Stadium, Qatar – Iran, backed by their thousands of vociferous supporters, have knocked out favourites Japan and earned a spot in the semifinals of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 with a famous 2-1 win.
In a match billed as an early final of the tournament – given both teams’ history in the competition, their FIFA rankings and strong squads – Iran turned the tables on the four-time champions on a cool Saturday afternoon at Education City Stadium in Qatar.
In a tournament that is now well-known for its late drama, Iran’s captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh delivered one of the most famous goals in his country’s Asian Cup history with a heart-in-mouths stoppage-time penalty that booked Team Melli a place in the second semifinal on Wednesday.
The opening minutes of the game saw Japan make several bursts towards Iran’s goal but failed to convert their chances, much to the delight of the large Iranian contingent positioned behind it.
Hidemasa Morita changed that with his goal in the 28th minute and the small groups of Japanese fans scattered around the stadium finally made their presence felt. However, it did little to deter Team Melli’s supporters, who took up their synchronised clapping and chanting by a few more notches.
The team, one of the oldest squads at the tournament, pulled up their socks after half-time and began a back-and-forth contest with the Samurai Blue as they sought an equaliser.
Perhaps they were out to impress their coach, Amir Ghalenoei, who had slammed the team for missing several chances to score against Syria in their round-of-16 match on Thursday.
“I’m not really happy with the performance of a few players but I’m very happy with the discipline we showed,” Ghalenoei had said.
Iran’s first goal finally came 10 minutes into the second half as Mohammed Mohebi slotted Sardar Azmoun’s through pass into the Japanese goal and sent their fans into a frenzy. Their unwavering support had finally paid off.
More than two-thirds of the spectators were either dressed in Iran’s colours or carrying Iranian flags. Some, like Wafai Salar, had travelled from across the Arabian Gulf to back their team.
He came to Doha 10 days ago from the western Lorestan province to back his team in the latter stages of the tournament.
“We must not doubt our team,” Salar told Al Jazeera before the match.
The belief was reiterated by 72-year-old super fan Mohamed Mirza, who said the team did not feel the absence of their star striker Mehdi Taremi, who missed out on account of his two yellow cards in the game against Syria.
“We have 24 Taremis in the squad,” he shouted after the match.
“I have been living in Qatar for decades and have seen three Asian Cups here, so now the team owe me a trophy,” Mirza said before resuming his chants for Iran.
Indeed, Ghalenoei’s team showed they were up for the challenge against heavy favourites Japan by defending their goal and following it up with runs into the Japanese half. One of these, late into stoppage time, resulted in Iran winning a penalty.
The late drama was too much for some fans, who turned their backs to the pitch before the penalty was taken by Jahanbakhsh. Once the ball was deposited in the top left corner, pandemonium broke out in the stands and on the pitch. Iran’s substitutes ran onto the pitch to celebrate and their fans jumped out of their seats.
Three minutes later, the referee’s full-time whistle confirmed Japan’s dismissal. The Japanese fans seated behind their goal held their heads in their hands and shed tears of agony and disbelief.
Across the aisle, nine-year-old Iran fan Ario was crying, as well. The dramatic last-minute penalty was too much to take for the young supporter.
“I was so nervous before the penalty was taken, I peeled the skin off my fingers,” he told Al Jazeera as tears fell down his cheek.
Ario, a Canadian Iranian citizen, has never been to the country of his parents’ birth but would one day like to play for Team Melli.
“I get so excited every time I see them play, so I want to be like them one day,” he said.
Ghalenoei’s men will give Ario and the millions of Iran fans the world over another chance to ride the wave of emotions when they take on the winner of the Qatar vs Uzbekistan quarterfinal in four days’ time.
For old-timers like Mirza, it may even be a case of third-time lucky if the three-time champions walk away with the trophy on February 10.
First appeared on www.aljazeera.com