Sporting immortality beckons for the plucky minnows of Jordan on Saturday when they line up for an entirely unexpected appearance in the Asian Cup final against hosts and holders Qatar at the Lusail Stadium.
Having only ever qualified for four editions of the tournament prior to this year, and having never made it past the quarter-finals, Jordan’s run to the showpiece event has been a football fairytale which is just 90 minutes away from reaching the happiest of endings.
As with any epic fairytale, the protagonist has faced trials and tribulations along the way, but Hussein Ammouta’s men now only have one more obstacle between them and one of the biggest shock triumphs in international football history.
To call them surprise packages would be to undersell their run to the final, with none of the pre-tournament predictions or betting summaries even mentioning Jordan as potential winners.
The Chivalrous, as they are nicknamed, are ranked 87th in the world, below the likes of Zambia, Luxembourg and Gabon. From Asian Cup participants alone, there are 12 teams ranked higher, including Bahrain, China, Oman, Uzbekistan, UAE and Iraq.
However, they have repeatedly punched above their weight and are now within touching distance of getting their hands on a first ever piece of major silverware.
“Jordan have beaten some really good teams to get here, and although they come into the match very much as underdogs with Qatar being the hosts, don’t write off Jordan,”
“Particularly the way they saw off Korea in the semi-final, I think they’ve got real confidence amongst their team.”
Some eyebrows were certainly raised when Jordan came flying out of the traps in their opening game against Malaysia, blitzing a previously optimistic opponent with three goals inside the opening 32 minutes and going on to run out convincing 4-0 winners.
Victory over the 130th-ranked side in the world – even by four goals – was not enough to hint at what was to follow, but a 2-2 draw against the might of Son Heung-min’s South Korea, who needed a 91st-minute own goal to even rescue a point, made people sit up and start taking notice.
However, a 1-0 defeat to Bahrain in their final group game meant that Jordan only reached the last 16 as one of the highest-ranked third-placed teams in the group stage, and they looked destined for the exit door when they trailed Iraq 2-1 in the 94th minute of their last 16 tie.
Iraq had earlier been controversially reduced to 10 men – Aymen Hussein being sent off after scoring when his celebrations were deemed to be mocking those of Jordan from earlier in the match, and Ammounta’s men went on to complete an incredible turnaround.
Goals in the 95th and 97th minutes – with a red card of their own sandwiched in between for good measure – saw Jordan turn the game on its head in the most dramatic fashion, providing one of the wildest ends to a game in the competition’s history.
By contrast, their wins over Tajikistan in the quarter-final and even South Korea in the semi-final – beating Jurgen Klinsmann’s side 2-0 in their second meeting of the tournament – were relatively straightforward.
The final hurdle may well be their hardest yet – not in terms of footballing quality, but in terms of going against the host nation and defending champions, who have their own point to prove after such a disappointing showing at the World Cup in 2022.
Asked if Jordan warrant their shock place in the final, Corkhill said: “They deserve to have got this far. They had a little bit of luck in the round of 16 match – a remarkable game against Iraq.
“I was lucky enough to be commentating on it; Iraq took a lead in the 76th minute through the tournament’s leading goalscorer Aymen Hussein, but then Hussein picked up a second yellow card for celebrating his goal.
“That got a lot of controversy, but it was a deserved yellow card. He had been told by the referee Alireza Faghani to stop his celebration – he’d been told not once but twice – and then he sat down a third time and picked up a second yellow card.
“That changed the game – Jordan went and scored two goals in the 95th and 97th minute against 10 men, so that was the little bit of fortune they had, because Iraq were looking very strong, but since then they have been really very very good.
“Their performances against Korea, both in the group game, where they drew 2-2 and Korea needed a last-minute own goal equaliser through Yazan Al-Arab, who’s been very strong, and in the semi-final. Musa Al-Taamari – one of the players of the tournament – scored one of the goals of the tournament, an individual run from near the halfway line, went past three defenders and slotted it into the corner.
“So they thoroughly have deserved their place – it’s a small squad, very limited, they know their gameplan, they defend and hit on the break with three lightning fast strikers, and it’s worked.”
With relatively limited coverage of the tournament in parts of Europe and the Americas, and the Africa Cup of Nations generally garnering more attention, it would be easy for the scale of Jordan’s achievement to be missed – or at best underappreciated – by many.
The tournament itself has been a thriller from start to finish, with late goals, incredible drama and upsets galore – and had it been more readily accessible in parts of Europe then it would have undoubtedly captivated supporters who otherwise might not pay attention to the twists and turns of Asian football.
Jordan’s story in particular is one that deserves to transcend Asia, and should they get over Saturday’s final hurdle, it would be one of the all-time great upsets in international football.
When asked whether it would be the biggest shock in Asian Cup history, Corkhill said: “By a long, long way. Japan dominate, even Korea and Iran, who haven’t won this century, or Saudi Arabia, they are expected to pick up the prize far more than Jordan.
“Think Greece winning the Euros in 2004, and that is the size of it. Except think Greece playing football, rather than just sitting back and defending. It’s been a massive shock, and really great for Asian football.
“One of the great stats of the final is that there is only one European-based player who is going to be playing in this Asian Cup final, and that’s Musa Al-Taamari, who plays for Montpellier in France.
“So all the big names from Japan, all the superstars from Korea, all the really well-paid players from Saudi Arabia, and even the guys from Iran, who would be expecting to be in this final – they’re nowhere to be seen.
“So the story for Jordan is good, and it also suggests in my way of thinking an equalling-up and Asia getting closer and closer and closer to the top levels, and doing it with tactical sense, lightning-fast raids, good set pieces and good football.”
The belief amongst the Jordanians will be higher than ever and, while there is a sense that they have already exceeded even the wildest expectations for them, to have come so far and then miss out would still no doubt be a heartbreaking end to an otherwise unforgettable tournament.
Jordan have never come anywhere near to the final before and there is no telling how long it will be before they have such a glorious opportunity again – so, having already become the lowest-ranked team to ever make it to the final, can they go all the way and win it?
“I think it’ll be one step too far,” predicts Dez Corkhill. “But I thought Korea would be one step too far, I thought Iraq would be one step too far, I thought they would be vulnerable against Malaysia, so I’ve been wrong every single step of the way with Jordan!
“They continue to perform. You know what they’re going to do, but stopping them, and stopping a team who’s confident… and they’ve defended really very well as well. There’s a central defender – Yazan Al-Arab – who scored the own goal against Korea but has defended really really well throughout this tournament. He deserves a lot of praise.
“Physically they’re a strong team, so they won’t be bullied by Qatar by any stretch of the imagination, but fairytales don’t come true, do they? Well, they did for Greece – maybe it will come true, but it would be a major shock. Qatar for me, but I’ve been wrong all the way through this tournament!”