Kuwait’s crowning glory turns into a nightmare at Spain 1982 World Cup

The Kuwait team that qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the first Gulf or Arab team from Asia to do so. (Screenshot: YouTube)
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Updated 16 June 2020

Kuwait’s crowning glory turns into a nightmare at Spain 1982 World Cup

  • The story begins in 1970, when Kuwait marked themselves as a regional power
  • Sadly for Kuwait, an incident against France caused untold damage to reputation and morale

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.

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

Updated 20 October 2020

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

  • Roberto Rivelino was the highest calibre of footballed to be seen coming into the Kingdom
  • Rivelino raised standards on and off the Saudi pitch, opening the door for others to follow

LONDON: He arrived in Riyadh by Concorde from Rio to be greeted by thousands of Al-Hilal fans at the airport before being whisked to his hotel by Rolls-Royce. It was quite an entrance, but then in August 1978, Roberto Rivelino was quite a player, one of the best and most famous in the world. By the time the Brazilian left Saudi Arabia three seasons later, football in the country had changed and would never be the same again.

Fans of Al-Hilal and plenty of other clubs are accustomed to these days of watching exciting foreign talent in action in the league, but few have been as famous or as influential or - to put it in simple football terms -- as good as this Brazilian legend who made almost 100 appearances for the five-time world champions. He was the first big star in a season that was the first to feature foreign players.

Just weeks before, Saudi football leaders had watched Iran become the first team from Western Asia to compete at the World Cup, but there was already a determination to bring some serious talent to a professional league that had only just started in 1976. So in came the captain of Brazil, according to the influential World Soccer magazine, the 38th best player of the 20th century. 

Here was a star who stood out alongside Pele and Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup winning team, hailed by many as the best ever. Fans in Saudi Arabia soon started to see just how good he was.

“It was almost amateur football at the time as football was really just starting there,” Rivelino said in an interview with Brazilian television in 2019, before Al-Hilal took on Rio club Flamengo at the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We trained at the same stadium in which we played the games. There were three teams in Riyadh and so we trained from 6 to 7 p.m., the next team from 7 to 8 and then the third from 8 to 9.”

The star had been part of the Brazil national team that played a friendly in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1978 World Cup when conversations had started about a possible move.

“I talked to my family and then decided to go. It was my first time to play outside Brazil and though the culture and country was very different, it was a special time for me.”

Roberto Rivelino linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. (Twitter)

Progress was already being made in a country that had at the time a population of just nine million. Rivelino enjoyed driving a Mercedes car in Saudi Arabia, owning one had been a lifelong dream, and also enjoyed the pristine condition of the artificial pitches in the country. He did, however, find the weather difficult to adapt to at first, playing with a wet cloth in his mouth to try and retain as much moisture as possible.

The Brazilian linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. It was clinched by the Brazilian in fine fashion in the penultimate game against challengers and rivals Al-Nassr. Rivelino pounced on a loose ball well outside the area and lashed home an unstoppable half-volley to score the only goal of the match. The first and only defeat of that season came in the final game with the trophy safely in the cabinet. It was joined by The King’s Cup the following year. 

“He made it look so easy but he worked hard to make it look easy,” said Limam. “At first defenders were in awe of him and that gave me opportunities but he was consistently good and gave local players a taste of what you need to be a world-class player, it is not just about talent but mentality.”

Despite often playing deep in midfield, Rivelino scored 23 goals in fewer than 60 appearances for Al-Hilal. His set-piece skill has yet to be surpassed and he even thrilled fans by scoring directly from a corner against Al-Ittihad, but there was more to it than that. For foreign players, especially in growing leagues, impact can’t be measured by statistics.

Rivelino raised standards on and off the pitch. Being the first Brazilian to play professionally in the region, he opened the door for players from the South American nation to follow and Zico, another midfield legend from the country, almost arrived. Many did come, coaches too, and they have played their part over the years.



(YouTube video)

Few though could have the impact of Rivelino.  “It was a good place to play football and I played well. I trained hard and I worked hard and it was a good time,” he reflected.

He felt that by the time he retired in 1981, he still could have done a job for a hugely-talented Brazil at the 1982 World Cup even though he was in his mid-thirties.

“They should have come to see me play but today you can play in Saudi Arabia and the national team still remember you but it was different then. 

“But I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. I gave everything to the club and the club, the players and the fans treated me with respect and Al-Hilal will always have a special place in my heart.”

The same should be the case for anyone with an interest in Saudi Arabian football. Rivelino was one of the first foreign players in the country and remains one of the best.