A series of fortunate events helped Al Sadd secure a highly unlikely victory in the Asian Champions League, as John Duerden reports
The celebrations didn't rival those from December last year, when Qatar was named host of World Cup 2022, but Al Sadd's victory in the 2011 Asian Champions League has been painted as a triumph against the odds – inside the tiny peninsula at least. Elsewhere on the continent, however, the surprise was not a welcome one. All agree that the final itself was a thrilling affair. A crowd of 42,000 packed into the Jeonju World Cup stadium in South Korea to see local team Jeonbuk Motors host the west Asians.
All the signs pointed to a home win. Jeonbuk, the 2006 champions, had been the most impressive team in Asia in 2011 and were playing at home.The Koreans should have won. They took an early lead but gifted the Qataris an own goal before the break. In the second half, Al Sadd's Ivory Coast international Kader Keïta put the team ahead with a fine strike. Jeonbuk equalised in the last minute and proceeded to dominate extra time, hitting the woodwork three times and finding goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr in inspired form. Saqr proceeded to save two penalties in the shoot-out and that was that.
Many Jeonbuk fans left complaining about the Qatari team's time-wasting tactics. They were not the first supporters in the tournament to feel frustrated after elimination by Al Sadd. The Qatari team only entered the competition due to the administrative errors and subsequent expulsion of a Vietnamese club. Al Sadd made it through the group stage by virtue of winning just two games out of six, both of which saw the opposition end with ten men. It wasn't pretty, but the knockout stages beckoned.
Al Sadd lost the first leg of the quarter-final 1-0 and the second 2-1 but still progressed to the last four. The opposition, Sepahan, fielded an ineligible player in the first leg in Iran, which led the Asian Football Confederation to give Al Sadd a 3-0 win. The Iranians pointed out in vain that the player had received his previous yellow cards while playing for a different team.
The episode was enough to annoy Iraq however. In qualification for the last World Cup, Qatar fielded Emerson, a player who had played for Brazil's Under-20 team, in a 2-0 win over Iraq in March 2008. Nobody disputed that the player was ineligible, but Qatar pleaded ignorance and FIFA threw out Iraq's appeal, saying their federation had missed the deadline to pay the appeal fee by 11 days. That decision was later upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
If Al Sadd, along with the confederation, somehow managed to get Iraqi and Iranian backs up, they repeated the feat with South Koreans in the semi-final. The K-League powerhouses, Suwon Bluewings, were the favourites – rightly so after 15 years and 24 games unbeaten at home in Asian competition. That proud record was under serious threat in the first leg with ten minutes remaining as the hosts were trailing 1-0. Suwon were on the attack when two players went down injured in the penalty area. After the move fizzled out, the Koreans allowed the ball to go out of play. Expecting to receive it back, Suwon stood and watched as Al Sadd attacked and scored past a stunned goalkeeper.
A massive brawl ensued. It became worse when a Suwon fan entered the pitch to square up to the Al Sadd goalkeeper Saqr. Stevica Ristic of Suwon and Keïta were sent off for fighting, as were members of both coaching staffs. As things calmed down, Al Sadd's Korean defender Lee Jung-soo, a former Suwon player, walked off the pitch in disgust and was hastily substituted. After the match, Lee said he didn't know if he would play for the team again.
In fact, Lee appeared in the second leg and watched as Suwon took an early lead. The Koreans were left hugely frustrated by some questionable time-wasting tactics and could only win 1-0. After the semi-final, Al Sadd coach Jorge Fossati commented that that his team, now nicknamed “Al Badd”, had come through despite the injustice of their red cards – their striker Mamadou Niang was also dismissed – which only wound up the visitors even more.
The Koreans were annoyed further by the Asian confederation's disciplinary committee, which met to decide if Ristic and Keïta should be punished further for their part in the brawl. Ristic was banned for six games, including domestic matches, while Keïta – ostensibly sent off for the same offence – was let off, giving rise to the conspiracy theory that the confederation wanted Al Sadd to win. They did not have much support from across the continent, but as Qatar's football fans know well, an unpopular victory is still a victory.
From WSC 299 January 2012