DUBAI: Those with only a passing knowledge of Asian, Middle Eastern or Gulf football will know how this story ends. Badly.
But dig a little deeper into the history of Kuwaiti football and you’ll find that the infamous match against France at the 1982 World Cup in Spain does not deserve to overshadow the decade-long journey of a golden generation of players.
The story begins in 1970, when Kuwait marked themselves as a regional power by winning the very first Gulf Cup on home soil. They went on to win the next three as well for an impressive haul of seven of the first 10, stretching all the way to 1990.
But it was in 1976 that a truly great team emerged.
Under legendary Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo, Jasem Yaqoub, Faisal Al Dakheel, Fathi Kameel, Ahmed Al Tarabulsi and Abdulaziz Al Anabari became heroes in their own nation and across the Middle East and Asia. Off the pitch they transcended football, with celebrities and politicians seeking their company everywhere they went.
After claiming the 1976 Gulf Cup in Qatar, while launching a fierce and unforgettable rivalry with Iraq, they would also reach the AFC Asian Cup final that year, only to lose to Iran in the final; qualify for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, where they lost in the quarter-finals to the home nation; win the 1980 AFC Asian Cup in Kuwait; and, finally, qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the first Gulf or Arab team from Asia to do so.
It was their crowning glory and this formidable team, coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, were not there to make up the numbers.
Before their first match, against Czechoslovakia at the Estadio José Zorrilla in Valladolid, viewers were intrigued by Kuwait’s mascot, a camel call Haydoo, and their slogan “Our Camel is a Winner.” This display was prompted after a bitterly contested qualifying match with New Zealand on Oct. 10, 1981, when the home fans at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium paraded a banner that said “Go back to your camels.” Kuwait won 2-1.
The Kuwaitis started against the Czechs confidently, but went behind after conceding a penalty in the 21st minute.
The scorer of the penalty was none other than Antonin Panenka, who six years earlier had pioneered his own brand of spot-kick technique in Czechoslovakia’s 1976 European Championship final triumph over West Germany.
This time he scored again, though not with the style that would universally become known as a “Panenka.”
This Kuwaiti team was still high on confidence despite the deficit, and got a deserved equaliser in the 57th minute when Al Dakheel struck a swerving shot past a clearly disoriented Zdeněk Hruska.
The Kuwaitis pressed for a historic win against a team that included players who had conquered Europe only six years earlier. In the end a draw on their World Cup debut was satisfying enough, though tougher matches against France and England awaited.
Still, like a brash young boxer, Kuwait believed they could give the big boys a bloody nose or two. And their next opponents, France, had played relatively poorly in their 3-1 defeat to England in their opening match.
The Kuwaitis were about to be taught a football lesson.
Playing in an unfamiliar away kit of red, the Asian champions were no match for a sensational French squad who were, for the first time showing a glimpse of the greatness that would see them reach the semi-finals in Spain and, two year later, become European champions.
Three goals from Bernard Genghini, Platini and Didier Six in a devastating 17-minute spell either side of half time left Kuwait on the ropes. In the heat of Valladolid, the Kuwaitis simply had no answer for France’s speed and energy.
A goal by Abdullah Al Buloushi briefly invigorated Kuwait, though nobody saw it as anything more than a consolation. The match drifted toward an inevitable conclusion.
Then came the moment that will forever be associated with Kuwait’s one and only World Cup appearance.
Giresse scored what looked like a fine goal. The Kuwaitis claimed it was offside. From the stands the head of Kuwait’s Football Association, Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, signalled for his players to walk off the pitch, before making his way down to the touchline for a long argument with Soviet referee Myroslav Stupar.
Incredibly, the goal was disallowed. The French were incensed but, with a healthy lead and comfortably in control, they went ahead and scored a fourth in the dying moments of the match.
Sadly for Kuwait, the incident caused untold damage to reputation and morale.
In their final group match against England, they played well in patches, but the confidence and momentum shown in the Czechoslovakia match, and indeed the previous few years, was gone. They lost 1-0 to a Trevor Francis goal to exit meekly.
It was a sad ending for the Gulf’s first truly great team. Though not clear at the time Kuwaiti football, despite several more Gulf Cup wins, had reached its peak. The match against France started a downturn that the national team has arguably never recovered from to this day.
In the eyes of those who lived to see their decade-long heroics, however, the memory of Kuwait’s golden generation will live on forever.