As with any process of change, there is always a turning point.
Ours came in March 2018, and in a very difficult place to play: Iraq. Every time the national team plays, the stadium is full – 75,000 people in the stands! A spectacular atmosphere. We won 3-2.
Days later we drew with Syria, a team that had beaten us 3-1 the previous summer. And one that had been close to going to the World Cup, despite the situation the country is going through.
Patience was bearing fruit, and the team was starting to advance.
Our next step was to face major national teams: Ecuador, Switzerland and Iceland. We beat Ecuador at home, then went to Switzerland and won there. Five days later, we drew with Iceland. It felt really good, but they were just friendlies.
We began to doubt. Would we be able to compete at that level in official matches?
“When I arrived in Qatar in 2006, there were only 220 registered players to choose from in the whole country”
The 2019 Asian Cup would give us the answer.
We took a very young team to the competition. For instance, five of the players who were to feature in the final against Japan had just come through from the Under-19 team.
Not only did the players compete, but they exceeded any preconceptions we brought to the tournament. We won all seven of our matches, scoring more goals than any other team and conceding the fewest in the tournament.
We did it beating big teams, too. Iraq in the last 16, South Korea in the quarter finals, United Arab Emirates in the semi finals and Japan in the final – a team that had never lost in four previous Asian Cup finals.
After that Andorra match in England, the only word that went through my head was ‘work’. After winning the final against Japan, my feelings overflowed.