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Icons aim for final flourish at Asian Cup

8 Jan 2024

Doha – As the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023 draws ever closer to the big kick-off on Friday, some of Asia’s most decorated and recognisable players may be about to appear in the competition for the last time.

From the host nation’s captain to India’s talisman and many others, a number of veterans will take to the pitches across Qatar as they look to inspire their countries to a successful campaign.

Whether it will be the last time we see them in AFC Asian Cup action is yet to be determined, but shines the spotlight on five players who could be appearing in the continent’s most prestigious tournament for the final time of their illustrious careers.

Sunil Chhetri (India)

India’s leader Sunil Chhetri first appeared in the AFC Asian Cup back in 2011 in Qatar and showed flashes of brilliance by scoring against South Korea and Bahrain in the group stage.

He went on to become a prolific goal scorer for club and country, firing his long-serving side Bengaluru FC to the AFC Cup final in 2016 and winning a host of domestic honours. He returned to the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 and netted a brace in India’s 4-1 win over Thailand, marking the nation’s first continental win in 55 years.

Fast forward five years and the 39-year-old remains pivotal to the Blue Tigers’ challenge having become the third-highest active men’s international goal scorer, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Chhetri netted nine goals in the past calendar year and is now set for what is surely his swansong AFC Asian Cup.

Hassan Maatouk (Lebanon)

Another veteran forward, Hassan Maatouk is approaching the twilight of his career as Lebanon’s all-time top scorer and most capped player will lead the team to their second successive AFC Asian Cup appearance in Qatar.

Having participated as hosts in 2000, Maatouk led his nation to qualify for the competition for the first time in 2019 while finding the back of the net and providing a brilliant assist against DPR Korea as the Cedars registered their maiden AFC Asian Cup victory.

The 36-year-old left-sided forward’s creative play and ability to take on defenders is crucial to Lebanon’s attack and Maatouk, who has appeared for his country more than 110 times since debuting in 2006, will be aiming to deliver the goods once again ahead of the tournament’s curtain-raiser against Qatar.

Zhang Linpeng (China)

A mainstay of the Chinese defence since 2010, Zhang Linpeng scored on his AFC Asian Cup debut against Kuwait in 2011 in what would turn out to be the first of many significant moments of his career on the continental stage.

In his prime, Zhang won two AFC Champions League titles with Guangzhou FC in 2013 and 2015 as well as numerous domestic honours as he proved to be a key cog in a side that dominated Chinese football for the best part of a decade.

Success for the national team has been scarcer, however, with the EAFF East Asian Football Championship in 2010 his only major honour. Now 34, Zhang is set for his fourth AFC Asian Cup appearance and will look to at least match his best-ever quarter-final showing.

Hassan al Haydos (Qatar)

One of the stars of Qatari football’s most successful generation, Hassan al Haydos will be remembered as the player who captained the Gulf nation to their greatest achievement when he led his country to a maiden AFC Asian Cup title in 2019.

While the nine-goal Almoez Ali and Akram Afif may have grabbed most of the headlines, Al Haydos was excellent throughout the triumphant 2019 campaign and was on the scoresheet in the 4-0 semi-final win over hosts the United Arab Emirates.

Qatar’s record appearance maker, who also tasted continental glory by winning the AFC Champions League with Al Sadd SC in 2011, skippered his nation at the FIFA World Cup in 2022 and will once again lead his side out on home soil as he looks to write another chapter in what has been a glittering career.

Ehsan Hajsafi (Iran)

Yet another national team captain, Ehsan Hajsafi has been a regular for the Islamic Republic of Iran since 2008, amassing well over 135 caps and appearing at three FIFA World Cups and three AFC Asian Cups.

The versatile left-back has spent the majority of his club career between his homeland and Greece, and last season completed arguably his finest domestic campaign by clinching the domestic double with AEK Athens.

Now 33, Hajsafi has been part of Iranian sides that have reached two AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals and a semi-final. But there is no doubt he will head to Qatar with the aim of ending Team Melli’s long wait for a fourth continental title in what may be his last chance to do so.

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