Qatar became the first non-European side ever to reach a World handball final after beating Poland 31-29 on Friday.
In a historic night for the sport at a jubilant and packed 15,300-seater Lusail stadium, Qatar overcame a hesitant start to beat a dogged Polish side and shake up handball’s world order.
Previously, no Asian team had got further than the quarter-finals and only two African sides had ever reached the semi-finals.
The hosts, who went into the tournament ranked 36, had said at the beginning of the cup that their aim was to reach the last eight.
But after three straight victories in the knockout phase against strong European teams — Austria, Germany and Poland — relative newcomers Qatar will now contest the final against one of the sport’s elite nations, France.
The reigning European and Olympic champions, the French have the chance to go for the triple crown after dethroning reigning world champions Spain in a fiery encounter, winning 26-22. The final will be played on Sunday.
Qatar’s Spanish-born coach Valero Rivera said it was a “great day”.
“My aim was to play the final and today I am the most happy man in the world. I am very, very happy for the country,” he said before adding the players would celebrate on Friday but prepare for the final “after breakfast” on Saturday.
Polish player Poitr Maslowski said his team were unhappy with the officials.
“In the second half, the decisions made by the referees were in favour of the hosts. We left our hearts on the field. Congratulations to the host team,” he said.
Some off the pitch have questioned the energy-rich Gulf state’s progress because of the number of foreign players they have drafted in, but Qatar, regardless of its international flavour, have been worthy winners on it.
However, at first on Friday, it appeared that history was to be denied as the Polish started much the better and mainly through influential pivot Michal Jurecki, led until the 20th minute.
The omens were not good for the Qataris.
Twice Poland scored despite having a player in the sin-bin, to emphasise their early superiority.
And they were even able to deny Zarko Markovic, who had scored 55 times prior to the match, a goal until close to half time.
– Influential Capote –
Gradually though, the hosts edged back into the game.
The influential Rafael Capote equalised to make it 10-10 in the 20th minute, and it proved the game’s turning point.
Three minutes later Kamalaldin Mallash put Qatar ahead and it was a lead they never relinquished.
By half-time the hosts were ahead 16-13 and as the game began to slip away, Poland, like Qatar’s two previous opponents, Austria and Germany, felt aggrieved at several decisions made by the match referees.
The Polish bench erupted in fury in the 28th minute, complaining that the referees failed to give a foul on Karol Bielecki, which led to a Qatar counter-attack.
Their complaints were so furious coach Michael Biegler was yellow carded.
The second half was tense, but Qatar managed to maintain at least a two goal lead throughout. Poland edged close, 29-27 with less than two minutes to go, but the hosts clung on.
Markovic exploded into life in the final 10 minutes, to help settle any nerves, despite constant Polish pressure.
And a penalty from Markovic assured victory with just a minute to go.
At the final whistle, Qatar’s team of international stars — who all sang the national anthem before the game — celebrated wildly in front of an ecstatic crowd.
France and Spain, who between them have won four of the last five world titles, played out a bad-tempered but pulsating contest.
France dominated early on through Daniel Narcisse and Nikola Karabatic to lead 10-7 by the thirteenth minute.
A fine double save from France’s Thierry “Titi” Omeyer kept the Spanish at bay before the break and the French went in 18-14 ahead.
But the game exploded into life early in the second half when a French break was foiled by Jose Maria Rodriguez, unfairly claimed France, allowing the ill-feeling between both sides to boil over.
The Spanish refused to give up their crown lightly and pulled to within a goal by the 12th minute of the second half.
This was a period of the game dominated by superb goalkeeping from Omeyer — who saved four second-half penalties — and Spain’s Perez de Vargas, and by both teams contesting several contentious decisions.
Another flashpoint just two minutes later between Karabatic and Jorge Maqueda, with the Spaniards accusing the French player of diving, saw several players confront each other.