FIFA ban had ‘huge effect’ on Kuwait

The Kuwait team are now free to resume competitive international football after their suspension was lifted. (Shutterstock)

LONDON: Finally, after 782 long days Kuwait are back after FIFA lifted its suspension, but the two-year hiatus has killed off a generation of talent according to national team defender Talal Al-Fadhel.
Kuwait were plunged into footballing exile for 24 months after its government was accused of interfering in how the soccer federation was being run. FIFA says the “Kuwait Parliament has adopted a new sports law” which now complies with its statutes and leaves them free to resume competition, but Al-Fadhel feels some lasting damage has been done.
“I feel despair,” the 27-year-old told Arab News in an exclusive interview. “It’s had a huge effect both at home and abroad. Domestically the Kuwaiti players have no real ambition at present. Internationally, our ranking has plummeted, our national team doesn’t play and our clubs don’t take part in international competitions. I didn’t expect the suspension to last this long, it has finished off a generation completely.”
Kuwait once ruled Asian football, winning the Asian Cup on home soil in 1980, qualifying for the 1980 Olympic Games and the 1982 World Cup, their only appearance at either tournament, and winning seven of the 10 Gulf Cup titles between 1970 and 1990.
Those sides featured players who are still revered to this day, the likes of lethal strike duo Jasem Yaqoub and Faisal Al-Dakhil, industrious midfielder Fathi Kameel and captain Saad Al-Houti.
But those glory days must seem like a lifetime ago for the long-suffering fans of Al-Azraq, as Kuwaiti football falls further and further behind their Gulf rivals, with players and clubs devoid of any international football for more than two years, and their FIFA ranking dropping to an embarrassing all-time low of 186.
Al-Fadhel was a member of Kuwait’s 23-man squad for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia at the age 24, but was an unused substitute in all three games before Kuwait’s elimination in the group stage. Despite his lack of actual game time for the national team since his debut in 2013, as he was entering the peak of his career, he was hoping to force his way into Nabil Maâloul’s side.
“Of course, every player has that desire (to play more regularly),” he said. “And I was expecting the same.”
Three years on, now aged 27, he has lost three years of his career that he can never get back.
Prior to their suspension, Kuwait had started their joint qualification for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup in fine form, losing only one of their first five matches, a narrow 1-0 loss to South Korea, and were in a good position to progress to the final round of qualifying for the first time since qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
Progression to the final round would also have guaranteed qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE. That dream is now gone. Kuwait will have to watch on in January 2019 as all their fellow Gulf neighbors chase continental glory.
“I felt disappointed,” Al-Fadhel said of their expulsion from qualifying. “Especially as we were very close to qualifying for the second round, (which) the national team hadn’t achieved in a while.”
That is a feeling shared by one of Kuwait’s former superstars, the captain of their 1980 AFC Asian Cup winning team, Saad Al-Houti. “Naturally we are disappointed not to participate in World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup,” Al-Houti, who also captained the team at the 1982 World Cup, exclusively told Arab News.
“There will be a lot of disappointment for Kuwait fans, not just in Kuwait but also Arabs who love our national team which creates a glorious name for itself in many competitions.”
Al-Houti is now a member of the Kuwait Football Association executive committee, and last year had the chance to speak directly with new FIFA president Gianni Infantino about the ban, leading a delegation of Kuwaiti officials to the FIFA Congress in Mexico City last May to plead for the ban to be lifted.
“This is very hard to accept,” Al-Houti said at the time. “We just want to show we are separate from the government and we want to return things as they were before because this is doing us very great harm.”
Recalling his meeting with Infantino, Al-Houti remains disappointed by the FIFA president’s actions in the Mexican capital.
“When I saw the FIFA president in Mexico, I went and said hello and courageously told him that we came to have the ban lifted and that we need our youth to raise the Kuwaiti flag in international sports events,” Al-Houti explained.
“He literally told me that he will have a speech explaining the situation and that he will be neutral, but I was surprised by his speech that he supported the ban.”
After the election earlier this month of a new head of the Kuwait Football Association, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Yusef Al-Sabah, there was renewed hope that an end to the saga may be in sight, with Sheikh Ahmad saying he had “many goals, first and foremost lifting the suspension.”
On Sunday, Kuwait’s Parliament approved a draft law aimed at ending the bans by FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, and on Tuesday Infantino arrived in the country to officially announce the suspension had been lifted. Al-Fadhel, who signed for Omani side Saham Club in September, is hoping it does not come too late for him to continue his international areer.
“God willing, I hope I can play for the national team after the end of the suspension as I am only 27 years old.”