It seemed an impossible aspiration, but it is now on the verge of becoming a reality. Jordanian football fans, after many years spent dreaming about their national team performing on the sport’s greatest stage, now know that their heroes are just 180 minutes away from securing a maiden qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Irrespective of the final outcome, the Jordanian players can rightly feel proud of what they have achieved so far in this qualifying campaign, during which they have laid the foundations for a rosy future.
The recent continental play-off between Jordan and Uzbekistan captured the attention of the Asian press as well as the wider football world. Given that the winners would go on to play the fifth-placed team from the South American Zone for a place at Brazil 2014, the high level of interest was understandable.
After a thrilling two-legged battle, it was the Jordanians who overcame adversity to emerge victorious and book their place in the intercontinental play-off.
FIFA.com takes a look back at this laudable achievement.
A unique feat
Jordan have been taking part in World Cup qualifiers since the Mexico 1986 campaign, without ever achieving any success of note. However, over the past two years, their supporters became increasingly hopeful about a team that appeared to be making great progress, despite encountering a few difficulties along the way.
During the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, the side known as Al-Nashama suffered four away defeats – at the hands of Australia, Iraq, Oman and Japan – but a strong home record saw them accumulate 10 points, which was enough to secure third place in Group B. This accomplishment is all the more impressive when the obstacles the team had to face are taken into account.
Following the departure of Adnan Hamad earlier this year, coaching duties were handed to Hossam Hassan, an Egypt legend and a disciple of countryman Mahmoud El-Gohary, the man credited with originally starting Jordan’s football revolution.
Hassan, a former striker, who had no previous international coaching experience, took up the challenge and declared that World Cup qualification was a realistic goal.
Jordan’s displays in their double-header with Uzbekistan was a major boost to the ambitions of the new coach, who managed to instil enthusiasm, strength and belief in the team. Despite being held to a draw in Amman, Hassan remained confident that his side could obtain a positive result in the second leg in Tashkent.
“I never doubted our chances, even after drawing 1-1 at home. We knew that the match would be very tough, irrespective of the first leg result,” he said.
“We looked at the games as if they were two halves of one match. We banked on the squad’s abilities and fighting spirit, and studied our opponents closely, looking for any weakness we could take advantage of. In the end, we held on for a draw after 120 minutes and eventually booked our spot in the intercontinental play-off.”
In front of a partisan crowd in Pakhtakor Stadium, the Jordanians held their nerve to defeat Uzbekistan 9-8 on penalties courtesy of a solid final save from goalkeeper Amer Shafi. Exuberant celebrations ensued; Hassan, shaken and ecstatic, burst into tears.
“It was one of the highlights of my career. We always knew that getting through would be very difficult. I’ve just got a feeling that we’re now capable of going one step further, as unbelievable as that may seem to some people,” he said.
The players also reacted with hysteria and jubilation. At the final whistle, many of them sprinted to embrace Shafi, while others celebrated with their team-mates on the bench. They tossed their coach into the air, and shouts of joy could later be heard from the changing rooms during the visit of HRH Prince Ali Bin al Hussein, President of the Jordan Football Association.
While the triumph was the result of great teamwork, two players stood out on the night: Saeed Al Murjan, who scored a remarkable equalising goal, and the aforementioned Shafi, the star of the shootout.
Jordan had fallen behind early on in the encounter, but just as the first half was drawing to a close, Al Murjan levelled with a spectacular long-range effort that left the home ’keeper with no chance. The 23-year-old, who has established himself as one of the first names on the Jordanian teamsheet, dedicated the goal to his mother, who had recently passed away.
“She was the person I was closest to,” said Al Murjan. "She always supported me and stood by me, no matter the situation. I was determined to do something special for her: score a goal and help my team to qualify for the next stage, which was something she really wanted.
“Before the return leg, I had a hunch that we were going to win and told my team-mates as much. After the victory, they remembered my prediction and asked me to do the same again before the intercontinental play-off,” he added.
The curse of penalties
Jordan No1 Shafi also did his country proud in Tashkent. The 31-year-old shot-stopper, who had been an injury doubt in the run-up to the second leg, performed to a very high standard throughout, and became a hero to millions back home during the penalty shootout.
The goalkeeper found himself in the same situation as in 2004, when penalties were required to separate Japan and Jordan in the AFC Asian Cup quarter-final, although the final result was different. On that occasion, Shafi put in a masterclass between the sticks, but the Jordanians missed four spot kicks of their own and were eliminated from the tournament.
The disappointment of that memorable loss may well have played on the minds of the Jordanian players in Uzbekistan. Shafi still remembers it well.
“It was incredible. It happened near the beginning of my international career, and now, after nine years, I felt like I was facing the same challenge. However, this time I was determined to overcome the curse. I just thought about winning. And I began to think that victory was within our reach when Uzbekistan missed their first penalty.”
Despite the stalemate after five penalties, Shafi kept his composure so as to convey confidence to his team-mates.
“All I needed was one save. When the last penalty-taker for Uzbekistan, the goalscorer, Anzur Izmailov, came up, I opted to dive to the right, and it was the right guess. I’m delighted with our win and the fact we’re moving on, but I’m also happy that the shootout curse has ended. Although, to make our dream a reality, the hardest part is still to come,” he concluded.
Within the next couple of weeks, the Jordanians will learn the identity of their intercontinental play-off adversaries. Regardless of their opponents, the Asian representatives are ready to meet this final qualifying challenge head-on in their quest to reach Brazil 2014.