Kuwait City: Kuwaiti people remain proud that their national team led the way in putting Arabic football on the map in Asia, first by winning the 1980 AFC Asian Cup and then by securing a place at the FIFA World Cup Spain 1982 thanks to a golden generation of players who left a tremendous legacy for future generations.
Four decades after that historic World Cup participation, Kuwait are more determined than ever to revive those past glories.
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"That legendary team was a source of pride for Kuwait and created a roadmap that future generations tried hard to replicate," Kuwait's captain Bader Al Mutawa told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview from his home in the Kuwaiti capital, where he is spending his enforced COVID-19 quarantine.
"I’ve watched those games on video and on Kuwait's sports channel, and every time I see them, I get excited and eager to rewrite that history."
The highly regarded forward discussed, among other things, his journey with the national team and the ongoing Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
Back to competition
Al Mutawa, who is participating in his fifth World Cup qualifying campaign, is satisfied with his side’s start in Group B.
Al-Azraq (The Blue) are currently in second place - ahead of Jordan on goal difference and only two points behind pacesetters Australia.
With three games remaining for Kuwait, the team have a good chance to once again reach the final qualifying round.
"Many didn't expect us to make such a strong comeback," said Al Mutawa. "Kuwait were suspended from the 2018 qualifiers. We didn't participate in competitions and only just returned [in 2019] to regional tournaments like the Gulf Cup and West Asian Championship. Yet we managed to put together a new team capable of competing.
"We still have three games to go, two against our main rivals Australia and Jordan and one against Chinese Taipei. This means the opportunity is still there if we achieve the right results.
"With the postponement of the games, we now have enough time to prepare. We need to regain our fitness, and I'm sure the Kuwaiti Football Association will draw up a good plan so that we'll all be ready when the qualifiers resume."
The last time Al-Azraq made it to the final stage of Asian qualification was ahead of Germany 2006.
"In the first round we did well," said Al Mutawa, "but the competition was fierce in the final round. We made some mistakes and so lost our chance to qualify. Now we have higher goals.
"Before this qualifying campaign, we just wanted to be in the mix. But now, five rounds later, I believe we're very close. We need to capitalise on this situation and not waste opportunities."
Leader and expert
Though now 35, Al Mutawa has managed to stay fit and is deserving of his a place in the national team. Even as the squad gets replenished with young blood, the leadership skills and expertise of the veteran front man have proven indispensable.
Indeed, he started four of the five Group B games and came off the bench in the fifth game against Jordan in Amman, a 0-0 draw, underlying his importance.
"I thank God, as there's nothing more important than wearing the Kuwait jersey. I always want to serve my team, so I work to develop my physical performance to assert myself. But let me thank all the players who support me on the pitch. We all share the same goal."
Al Mutawa scored three goals, including the winner away to Nepal (1-0). So far in the group phase, Kuwait have racked up the joint-highest number of goals (17) alongside Islamic Republic of Iran.
"In such games, scoring is certainly important," he says. "But now we're focused on amassing points and determining our own fate. Nine points are still up for grabs, and we'll try to gain as many of them as possible. This will be our main aim when the Qualifiers resume."
But at this decisive stage in the competition, players need advice from old hands. As the only squad member with such vast competitive experience, Al Mutawa needs to guide his teammates.
"Everyone knows that we're at the latter stage of this journey. Each game has its own permutations. These are more like individual finals. I expect further pressure, especially as the fans long for Al-Azraq to return to the final qualifying round and keep the dream of reaching Qatar 2022 alive.
"I'll try to share my experience with the other members of the team so that we can overcome the psychological pressure and reach new levels on the pitch, relying on the fighting spirit that has always characterised Kuwaiti players."
History on their side
Kuwait have a historical advantage over one of their direct rivals in the Asian Qualifiers. The Western Asian side beat Australia twice in the Asia/Oceania qualifications for FIFA World Cup Argentina 1978 (1-0 and 2-1).
They also savoured victory over the Socceroos twice in AFC Asian Cup qualifying, winning 2-0 on home soil ahead of the 2007 edition.
Then en route to qualifying for the 2011 tournament, they drew 2-2 in the home leg having previously secured an important 1-0 win in the away fixture in Canberra.
Al Mutawa recalls that game in Canberra as being "one of our best tactical displays at the time”, adding: "Oman were also in our group and were neck and neck with us. The four points we took from the two Australia games helped us qualify.
"After we lost at home to Oman in our opening game, we had to beat the Australians or seriously jeopardise our qualification hopes.
"During the game, we were completely focused and managed to score late in first half. I put a ball into the penalty area for Musaed Neda, who got the goal. Despite immense pressure in the second half, our defence was impregnable, and we troubled them frequently on the break. I had three opportunities to score, but nothing came of them."
"That game should inspire us to fight again in Australia and come home with a positive result. That would give us a boost ahead of hosting Jordan in Kuwait. That’s a fixture we hope to win, so that we can head to Taipei with a great chance in the final match," Al Mutawa concludes.
In their head to heads against Jordan, Al-Azraq have won eight times and lost five. If things go to plan for Al-Mutawa and his teammates, we will see Kuwait back in the final qualifying round after a long absence, with their dreams of reaching Qatar 2022 still very much alive.
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP
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