Qatar pick up Saudi Arabia's fallen crown
With Bosnian Dzemaluddin Musovic having taken over the coaching reins from Frenchman Philippe Troussier, Qatar surprised many by brushing aside their Gulf neighbours in the 17th edition of the eight-team tournament.
A penalty shootout victory over Oman - the sides had ended the match at 1-1 - was greeted enthusiastically in Doha by a growing number of followers, whose football knowledge has increased in proportion to the influx of star foreign players to the state's domestic Q-League.
It was Mishal Mubarak who scored the winning penalty at the Al Sadd Stadium after Oman striker Imad Al-Hossani had cancelled out an early headed goal from Wissam Rizq. Not enough to make up for the disappointment of a poor showing at the Asian Cup 2004 and failure to reach the final knockout stage for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, but sufficient encouragement for the future.
"Obviously this is a very historic moment for Qatar especially because we hadn't won anything this year (2004)," said new boss Musovic, whose side had drawn its opening two matches against UAE and Iraq before beating Oman in the final group match and Kuwait 2-0 in the semis. "All credit to the boys who fought magnificently against the odds. They have done the country proud and will be motivated to achieve more success in the future."
Another of the Gulf underdogs, Oman, will also take the positives from reaching the final. They too, like many of the Gulf nations, will have to endure yet another coaching change, but the outgoing Czech Milan Macala can be delighted with his work of presiding over a nation whose footballing success has been limited to youth tournaments.
"We have a number of talented young boys and with a few year's improvement I believe they will become top stars in Asia," said Macala, who will now take over at UAE's Al Ain after two defeats to Japan knocked the Omanis out of the race for a place at Germany 2006.
Among those to watch out for are 22-year-old Ali Al Habsi, who was last season named the Norwegian league's top goalkeeper, skilful midfielder Hani Al Dhabat and 20-year-old forward and Gulf Cup top scorer Imad Ali.
"We have accomplished building the team in the first step and now the second step should be from the Oman FA and officials to continue the construction," added the Czech who saw his team qualify to the knockout stage with early wins, Iraq 3-1 and UAE 2-1, before disposing of the in-form Bahrain 3-2 in the semis.
In the third-place match, Bahrain defeated Kuwait 3-1 thanks to goals from Musaed Nada (own goal), the prolific Alaa Hubail and an injury-time effort from Duaij Naser. Kuwait's Saqr Khodeir had equalised earlier on. But with both sides through to the final qualifying round for Germany 2006, the semi-final finish will have been greeted as sound preparation ahead of the important battles to come.
The Gulf Cup may not be the most important date on the Asian footballing calendar but defeat to near rivals has caused considerable embarrassment in the past. Last year, Englishman Roy Hodgson was dismissed as coach of the UAE and after more lacklustre displays this time round current incumbent Dutchman Aad De Mos will not be sitting too easily.
Iraq, whose achievements in 2004 in reaching the quarter-finals on the Asian Cup and semis of the Olympic Football Tournament, were quite simply incredible were not able to match that success closer to home. Coach Adnan Hamd, who had led Iraq in 2004, has since quit his job because of security concerns in his homeland.
Without doubt the biggest disappointment came from Saudi Arabia where expectation was high after the appointment of Argentine Gabriel Calderon as coach. Defeats to Kuwait 2-1 and Bahrain 3-0 meant the champions caught an early flight home. The former Argentine star, the latest foreigner to take over the reins of the oil-rich nation, will not be given too much longer to find results. Like a good number of coaches in Asia, the upcoming Germany 2006 qualifiers will be make-or-break time.