Kuala Lumpur: Over the past few decades, Asian football has produced some iconic national teams. Having looked at Saudi Arabia’s majestic men's side from the 1980s and 1990s and China PR's women's team of the 1990s, next on this series is Kuwait’s mighty 1980s team.
Kuwait currently sit 156th in the latest FIFA Ranking, only 14 AFC nations are ranked lower, but things haven’t always been this way for the West Asian nation. Indeed, there was a time where Kuwait were Asian champions, competed at the FIFA World Cup and reached the quarter-finals of the Olympic Games.
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Success on all fronts was to follow soon, but it was at the regional Gulf Cup of Nations that the seeds of Kuwait’s dominance were sowed. The Blue Wave swept the first four titles of the tournament in the 1970s before Iraq entered the fray, becoming their biggest rivals with the two nations equally splitting the titles of the six editions contested between 1979 and 1990.
A little known Brazilian named Carlos Alberto Parreira arrived in 1978 and over the next four years, he would give Kuwait their best years, but also build the foundations of a career that made him one of the greatest football coaches of all time.
When Kuwait hosted the 1980 AFC Asian Cup, the Blue Wave had gone all the way to the final in Islamic Republic of Iran four years earlier, before losing to the hosts courtesy of an Ali Parvin goal. Fathi Kamel had impressed in Tehran, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.
On home soil, participating teams grew from six to 10, and Kuwait started with an unconvincing 1-1 draw against the UAE in Group B. Their second game saw them beat Malaysia 3-1 with Kameel getting on the scoresheet and Jassim Yaqoub netting two penalties.
A shock 3-0 defeat to Korea Republic cast doubts over the hosts’ ability to repeat their effort from four years earlier, but a 4-0 win over Qatar including a Faisal Al Dakhil brace steadied the ship, helping Kuwait finish the group stage in second place behind Korea Republic.
The semi-finals brought a repeat of the 1976 final, and Kuwait duly got their revenge. Yaqoub and Al Dakhil scored at Sabah Al Salem Stadium to lead the nation to their second consecutive continental final, despite Hossein Faraki’s consolation goal at the death.
Awaiting in the final were Korea Republic, who had beaten their DPR Korea 2-1 in the second semi-final. Another opportunity for payback was capitalised on by Pareira’s men. Saad Al Houti scored early on and Al Dakhil got his second double of the tournament as Kuwait City erupted into celebrations; Kuwait were finally on top of the Asian throne.
Having conquered the continent in 1980, Parreira’s next challenge was to take Kuwait to unprecedented heights. Passing this test would mean he could finally declare himself to the world of football on the biggest stage; Espana 1982.
The journey started in Kuwait City just seven months after that memorable final. Routine 6-0 and 4-0 wins over Thailand and Malaysia respectively set up a showdown against Korea Republic for a place in the final qualifying group. With both teams locked on four points, Abdulaziz Al Anbari and Nassir Al Ghanim stepped up and helped Kuwait to a repeat of their 1980 victory.
The final group stage saw Kuwait pitted against Saudi Arabia, China PR and New Zealand, with the four nations vying for two spots in Spain the following summer. Down in Auckland, Al Dukhail and Yaqoub helped Kuwait to a first win against the OFC representatives. A 3-0 stumble against China was swiftly amended with a 1-0 win in Riyadh.
Kuwait would play their last three group matches at home, and they made no mistakes in beating China 1-0 then Saudi Arabia 2-0, meaning qualification was already in the bag when New Zealand visited. An entertaining 2-2 draw confirmed Kuwait would be the AFC’s sole representatives in Spain, after New Zealand pipped China PR in the tie-breaking play-off to join Kuwait at the 1982 FIFA World Cup.
Kuwait’s only appearance on the world stage will perhaps be remembered for controversy rather than footballing reasons; their 4-1 defeat to France in Valladolid on the 21st of June 1982 came with a show of anger stemmed at the referee who appeared to whistle before Michel Platini’s through ball to Alan Giresse ended in a goal, a goal that was given by the Ukrainian referee Miroslav Stuper. The Kuwaiti team had stopped after that whistle - but the Frenchmen didn’t.
Kuwait managed a point and two goals during the tournament - the point coming after a spirited performance against Czechoslovakia, with the Europeans’ goal coming from a penalty scored by Antonin Panenka, while Al Dakhil blasted a stunning shot from 40 yards out to secure his country’s first and only ever point at a FIFA World Cup. The other goal came in that hectic game against France, scored by Abdullah Al Balushi after a well-executed set play routine.
The Parreira era ended after the FIFA World Cup campaign, and while his successors failed to win qualification to the 1986 and 1990 edition, Kuwait did win three Gulf Cup of Nations titles in the next seven years, and unearthed another great Brazilian manager and would-be world champion in Luiz Felipe Scolari, who guided them to the 1990 Gulf Cup of Nations, culminating an era of great success for Kuwaiti football that is yet to be matched.
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