DOHA, Qatar — The 2023 Asian Cup is now over and Qatar, once again, are champions, defeating Jordán 3-1 at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday evening after a hat trick of penalties from Akram Afif. Just over a year ago, the venue in the north of Doha was the site of Lionel Messi‘s coronation, but this weekend it was Hassan Al-Haydos’ turn, draped in a bisht of his own as the Maroons celebrated becoming just the fifth Asian nation to go back-to-back on the continental stage.
But across the month that it has taken to get us to this point, who has done the most to make their mark? Narrowing the 624 players who made up the 24 squads into an 11-player unit, plus a coach, is an exercise fraught with uncertainty.
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What goes into a standout tournament? Is it statistical domination or moments of individual brilliance? Or perhaps it is contribution to a team’s overarching success, or some kind of irresistible narrative behind their performances?
Further, are you trying to assemble a functioning football side? Or are you simply trying to fit 11 players into a lineup without it becoming too much of a disjointed, attack-heavy monstrosity that would almost certainly be a hilariously incohesive mess if you attempted to throw it onto the park?
In reality, it’s some combination thereof, with the personalised weighting placed upon these factors, just some of many, inevitably leading to the disagreements and arguments that give football its lifeblood. Some players are probably going to end up out of position, as well, simply because their performances deserve an elevated level of recognition but there’s the problem of someone that is equally as valid already being in that exact same spot.
Certainly, any player in consideration for these types of lists pays them little heed in comparison to the results on the park — no amount of media accolades can replace the feeling that comes with silverware. But excellence still deserves to be recognised, so here is ESPN’s Team of the Tournament for the 2023 Asian Cup:
ASIAN CUP 2023 TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT
Goalkeeper: Meshaal Barsham, Qatar
When a nation needs a hero, Meshaal Barsham steps up!
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 3, 2024
Heading into Saturday’s final, one could have made a case for Jo Hyeon-Woo to fill this slot, given his heroic performances for South Korea despite not even starting the tournament as their first choice.
However, after his appearance in the decider, highlighted by his spectacular save of an even more spectacular bicycle kick attempt from Yazan Al-Arab on the hour mark, it was impossible to go past Barsham, who was officially named the tournament’s best goalkeeper by the AFC following the final.
Indeed, while it’s difficult to rest the limelight off Afif, Qatar’s securing of back-to-back Asian Cup titles also doesn’t happen without the 25-year-old custodian’s contributions: saving three penalties in the shootout win over Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals, putting in a heroic performance against Iran (including that stop of Reza Asadi’s 105th-minute effort), and his rearguard efforts in the final.
Honourable mentions: Jo Hyeon-Woo (South Korea), Mathew Ryan (Australia), Khalid Eisa (United Arab Emirates), Rustam Yatimov (Tajikistan)
Left-back: Seol Young-Woo, South Korea
One of Korea’s most consistent performers in their run to the semis, Seol started on both the left and right for the Taeguk Warriors, in both a back four and a back five, while playing all but 15 minutes of the tournament.
The 25-year-old, reportedly a target of Serbian giants Crvena Zvezda, was making gut-busting runs right through the end of the 120 minutes against Australia in the quarterfinals, just 72 hours after assisting Cho Gue-Sung’s dramatic 99th-minute equaliser against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Seol would finish the tournament ranked equal third in chances created from open play and second in expected assists from open play, per Opta.
Honourable mention: Aziz Behich (Australia), Mohammed Waad (Qatar), Zafarmurod Abdirakhmatov (Uzbekistan)
Centre-back: Ali Lajami, Saudi Arabia
Perhaps somewhat lost amid the controversy surrounding Saudi Arabia’s early round of 16 exit and Roberto Mancini’s disappearing act during his side’s penalty shootout loss to South Korea was the fact that Lajami put together a very strong tournament for the Green Falcons.
His quick thinking to flick a header onward for Ali Al-Bulayhi’s 96th-minute winner ensured his side started the tournament on the right foot against Oman. He would go on to be one of his nation’s best against both Kyrgyz Republic and South Korea(he was rested for the 0-0 draw with Thailand), making several crucial interventions and finishing with the third-most ball recoveries of anyone in his side.
Honourable mention: Shojae Khalilzadeh (Iran), Abdullah Nasib (Jordan)
Centre-back: Harry Souttar, Australia
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) January 28, 2024
Souttar anchored a Socceroos defence that conceded just one goal from open play until their quarterfinal exit at the hands of South Korea, and he wasn’t at fault for the penalty or free kick that Hwang Hee-Chan and Son Heung-Min drilled, respectively, to send Australia home.
A fearsome presence in the air that forced sides to adjust their plans of attack — South Korea crossed with 36.8% accuracy against Saudi Arabia in the round of 16, compared with 12.5% against Australia — and possessing deceptively quick scrambling and recovery ability, the 25-year-old nonetheless faces an uncertain international future after he could not secure a move away from Leicester City, where coach Enzo Maresca has frozen him out.
Honourable mentions: Lucas Mendes (Qatar), Kim Min-Jae (South Korea)
Right-back: Abdul Rahman Weiss, Syria
The Qasioun Eagles reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup for the first time, and Weiss was a major contributor to the defensive fortitude that helped get them there; his side conceding just once from open play and even that goal, Jackson Irvine’s winner for Australia in the group stages, carried a bit of fortune about it.
Starting and playing every minute of every game throughout Syria’s tournament, the 25-year-old led his team in tackles won and was an equal leader in chances created from open play, interceptions, and recoveries across their four games. Despite the loss, he was close to best on in their round of 16 clash with Iran, where they were eliminated on penalties.
Honourable mentions: Ramin Rezaeian (Iran), Saud Abdulhamid (Saudi Arabia), Musab Al-Battat (Palestine)
Midfielder: Saman Ghoddos, Iran
Brentford star Ghoddos anchored the Iranian midfield as they moved through the gears and the tournament before playing a key role in their explosion to life against Japan; applying the press on goalkeeper Zion Suzuki that led to his poor attempted clearance and the rapid counter-attack that led to Team Melli’s equaliser.
The 30-year-old’s work rate was a key cog in the play of coach Amir Ghalenoei’s outfit, leading the team in ball recoveries and finishing among its leaders in touches and chance creation — presently ranked third for big chance creation amongst all teams at the tournament, per FotMob. Despite being 30 years old and Iran boss Amir Ghalenoei being called to aggressively pursue a policy of squad rejuvenation in the years ahead by Iranian fans, Ghoddos still shapes as an important contributor in the coming World Cup cycle.
Honourable mentions: Wataru Endō (Japan), Ali Jasim (Iraq)
Left-winger: Ehson Panjshanbe, Tajikistan
Tajikistan’s run to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup provided the tournament with its premier fairy tale; coach Petar Šegrt provided much of the pixie dust, but Panjshanbe — as well as Parvizdzhon Umarboev and Alisher Shukurov — gave the Crowns with plenty of on-field drive.
Playing out on the left in a side built on running and team cohesion, Panjshanbe led the Tajik squad in take-ons; was second in shots, chances created and expected assists from open play as well as ball recoveries; third for expected goals; and fourth in tackles. More tangibly, he assisted Nuriddin Khamrokulov’s dramatic, 92nd-minute winner against Lebanon that sent the Tajiks through to the knockouts in their debut tournament.
Honourable mention: Mehdi Taremi (Iran)
Right-winger: Akram Afif, Qatar
Afif’s honours list is a mile long: The tournament’s Golden Boot winner with eight goals. The tournament’s equal leader in assists with three. The first player to score a hat trick in an Asian Cup final. The winner of two of the three penalties he converted in that game. The first player to record more than 10 goal contributions in multiple iterations of the Asian Cup since Opta began tracking the stat in 2007. Either scoring or assisting 78.5% of the goals that Qatar scored on their way to the title and 67% of their goals across the 2019 and 2023 iterations combined. Recognised by the AFC as the player of the tournament.
Any team of the tournament that doesn’t feature Afif in it can be discounted because there is no player more deserving of this recognition than the attacking dynamo.
Still just 27, the star appears settled at Al Sadd, where he scores for fun in the dominant Qatar Stars League outfit. And fair enough if he wants to stay there, he doesn’t owe us anything. Still, there’s also going to exist that yearning to discover just what he could do in another extended go at things after previously testing the waters in Spain and Belgium. The talent, clearly, exists to make a go of things and teases like he gave post-final are only going to heighten that desire to see him test himself against the best of the best.
Honourable mentions: Takefusa Kubo (Japan), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Attacking midfielder: Lee Kang-In, South Korea
𝗦𝗘𝗠𝗜-𝗙𝗜𝗡𝗔𝗟𝗦 🔑 𝗞𝗘𝗬 𝗣𝗟𝗔𝗬𝗘𝗥
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 5, 2024
South Korea began the tournament with a very shaky group stage, but Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee produced a string of strong performances to keep Klinsmann’s side on track.
Grabbing a brace in the opening win over Bahrain and a goal and assist in their 3-3 draw with Malaysia, Lee led the competition, per Opta, in chances created and expected assists from open play, as well as take-ons prior to the final. It was he who produced his nation’s last real threat on Jordan’s goal in the semifinal — getting in behind the defence only to be prevented from shooting by a magnificent last-ditch challenge by Mohammad Abu Hasheesh.
The 22-year-old is also level with Son for most shots on target, with the Tottenham Hotspur superstar also making a key impact — none more so than in the round of 16 and quarterfinals with his match-winning refusal to let his side lose to Saudi Arabia and Australia. However, given the performances of others across the past month, the Korean attack can’t justify multiple positions in a team of the tournament — so Lee, just, gets the nod.
Honourable mentions: Son Heung-Min (South Korea), Yazan Al-Naimat (Jordan), Jaloliddin Masharipov (Uzbekistan)
Attacking midfielder: Musa Al-Tamari, Jordan
— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 6, 2024
In the wake of his nation’s qualification for its maiden Asian Cup final, after outplaying South Korea in their first continental semifinal, Al-Tamari was asked by Jordanian media if he was the greatest player in the history of The Chivalrous Ones.
The 26-year-old quickly shifted attention onto his teammates and coach Hussein Ammouta but, really, after his performances throughout the tournament, and especially in that win over the Taeguk Warriors, it’s difficult to argue that the Montpellier attacker hasn’t already put forward an irresistible case to assume that mantle.
Seizing upon a sloppy pass backward by SOuth Korea, Al-Tamari played a perfect pass between two defenders to spring Al-Naimat for the opening goal of that contest before going on a barnstorming run from the halfway line and driving an effort into the bottom corner to give his nation an unassailable lead.
Positive in possession and willing to back himself against defenders, Al-Taamari couldn’t find a way to spur his side into one final upset in the final against Qatar — getting into their penalty area ten times but unable to find the net — but he can still hang his hat on a tournament in which he was amongst the competitions leaders in take-ons and in which he proved particularly adept to carrying the ball and shooting.
Amid the semifinal celebrations, Jordanian media pressed Al-Tamari on whether clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United, or Real Madrid might come for him, with the attacker laughing and quickly adding his appreciation for Montpellier instead. But, based on his performances in Doha, interest across the continent has surely been piqued — something he hopes is replicated for other members of his squad.
Honourable mention: Ali Olwan (Jordan)
Striker: Ayman Hussein, Iraq
Hussein almost missed out on this team after getting himself controversially sent off against Jordan, setting the scene for their unlikely comeback and his nation’s premature elimination from the tournament. However, the 27-year-old was so dominant to that point that he still deserves recognition for his striking efforts.
With six goals to his name, the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya frontman led the Asian Cup’s Golden Boot race heading into the final, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he started only two of Iraq’s four games, coming off the bench in the other two and logging more than 45 minutes only once — netting a ridiculous 2.74 goals per 90 minutes.
Honourable mentions: Oday Dabbagh (Palestine), Sardar Azmoun (Iran), Ayase Ueda (Japan)
Head coach: Hussein Ammouta, Jordan
Jordan entered the Asian Cup ranked No. 87 in the world. They have never qualified for a World Cup and their previous best at an Asian Cup were two quarterfinal exits in 2004 and 2011. They were defeated 6-1 by Japan in a pre-tournament warm-up fixture, lost to Saudi Arabia in November World Cup qualifiers, and were held to a 1-1 draw in Tajikistan in the same window.
After advancing into the knockouts as one of the best third-placed finishers, their record goal-scorer Hamza Al-Dardour was sent home after their dramatic round of 16 win over Iraq following a very public argument on the sidelines with his coach. And yet, Ammouta somehow guided The Chivalrous Ones to within a whisker of an improbable Asian Cup crown, having set his side up to perfection as they sent a golden generation of Taeguk Warriors packing.
“Quite frankly it was the tactical discipline instilled in us by the coach before the match,” Al-Taamari said of the famous win. “He gave us the confidence to enter the match against a very big opponent. Of course, we gave the South Korean team the respect they deserve and we started pressuring them from the first second to prevent them from attacking us. In these matches, the spirit and patience are the most important things.”
The final may not have gone the way he wanted, but Ammouta can hold his head high.
Honourable mentions: Tintín Márquez (Qatar), Amir Ghalenoei (Iran), Petar Šegrt (Tajikistan)