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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - This AFC Asian Cup has had its fair share of surprises.
There has been Iraq’s stunning win over Japan, Malaysia’s remarkable last-minute equalizer to draw 3-3 with South Korea, and Tajikistan’s fairytale run to the quarterfinals. It is turning out to be a tournament to remember.
And consider also the drama at the Khalifa International Stadium yesterday when Jordan scored twice in second-half stoppage time to stun Iraq 3-2 and knock the 2007 champions out of the tournament.
But the scenes off the pitch have arguably been the biggest surprise of all.
Following so soon after the magic of Qatar 2022 was always going to be a tough task, especially for a tournament that does not have the same broad appeal as the World Cup and attracts significantly fewer overseas fans.
But while the scale may be different, the same atmosphere generated by the World Cup can be seen in the stadiums and throughout the streets of Doha, most notably the narrow confines of Souq Waqif.
The historic marketplace, a labyrinthine of narrow alleyways, has long been a gathering place where locals and Bedouins would meet to trade a variety of goods, including fish, goats and wool.
While it is now essentially a tourist attraction, selling a mix of tourist and traditional items, its status as a meeting place remains and whereas once it was fish and goats being traded, now it is football culture.
Fans from all over including Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have had their turn to take over the famous marketplace, with thousands upon thousands descending to sing and dance their way into the night in their traditional style.
It has created a vibe and momentum around the tournament that is as intoxicating as it is unexpected.
Last night it was Jordan fans taking over as they celebrated their side’s remarkable 3-2 victory over Iraq.
The Souq, however, is simply a reflection of what is happening inside the stadiums where there have been record attendances.
The magical 1 million mark was broken, for total attendance, at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday when 35,814 turned up on a rare overcast afternoon to witness one of the upsets of the tournament.
A further 63,753 made the long — by Qatari standards — trek out to the majestic Al-Bayt stadium in Al-Khor to watch the home side make it 11 consecutive wins in the AFC Asian Cup with a 2-1 win over Palestine.
With largely full stadiums expected the deeper the tournament progresses, it is not beyond the realm that overall attendance could smash 1.5 million by the time the final, to be played at the Lusail Stadium, comes around on Feb. 10.
Comparisons to previous tournaments are always unfair, and in this case not an entirely accurate affair given this year’s tournament (and that of 2019) contains 24 teams, whereas previous iterations had only 16, resulting in an extra 19 matches being played.
But for the sake of the exercise, the last time Qatar hosted the Asian Cup back in 2011, the entire tournament attracted just 405,361 fans.
While it is true that the tournament was played in smaller stadiums, long before the World Cup venues came into existence, it is also true that football in Qatar, and the Gulf more broadly, was in a very different place in 2011 compared to 2024.
Nowhere is that more true than in Saudi Arabia, where the Asian Cup in 2027 will take place.
Putting aside the rapid development of football within the Kingdom, in 2011 they crashed out without a win and their matches were attended by a combined total of just 35,139 fans.
Their opening game this tournament attracted 41,987, while they averaged just over 40,000 for their three group stage games.
Fan bases all across the Gulf have been awakened, and the result has been the explosion of color and noise witnessed across Qatar over the past few weeks.
The gauntlet has now been thrown down to Saudi Arabia to build on this success come 2027, and no doubt the authorities will pull out all the stops to ensure the carnival being experienced in Doha is replicated across the Kingdom.
But that is for another four years. For now, we are still reveling in the sights and sounds of this Asian Cup that is elevating Asian football and this tournament to the lofty heights we all want it to achieve.
What is exciting, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final still to be played, the best is surely yet to come.
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