RIYADH: It has been a lean few decades for fans of Kuwaiti football.
You have to go a long way back – all the way to the 1970s and 1980s – to find the last time Kuwait was at the forefront of Asian football.
Those with memories long enough will fondly remember those teams with Faisal Al-Dakhil, Saad Al-Houti, and Jasem Yaqoub. Asian Cup champions in 1980, qualifying for the 1982 FIFA World Cup, and winning five of six Gulf Cups between 1970 and 1982. It was a golden age for Kuwaiti football.
But that was almost 40 years ago. In a country with a median age of 36.2, most of the population will have no memory of those days, relying only on what they have been told by the generation old enough to remember.
In more recent times Kuwaiti football has been beset by off-field problems, with a recent international ban by FIFA – one of a number of bans the country has faced in the past two decades – extending over two years that, according to a national team defender, “finished off a generation” such was its effect.
“It’s had a huge effect both at home and abroad,” Talal Al-Fadhel told Arab News at the time.
“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,” he said.
While Kuwaiti football has yet to fully recover, especially at club level where the domestic league remains well off the pace from its regional rivals, the national team stands on the brink of an achievement not seen in almost two decades and one that was almost unthinkable a few short years ago.
Not since the qualification stages for the 2006 FIFA World Cup held in Germany has Kuwait progressed to the final round of qualifying, but with three games on home soil over the next fortnight against Australia, Jordan, and Taiwan, Al-Azraq are in prime position to do just that.
With Qatar almost certain to finish top of Group E – and having already qualified for the World Cup as the host nation – it means the other seven group winners plus the five best runners-up will qualify for the final stage.
Under new coach, Spaniard Andres Carrasco, Kuwait is currently second in Group B behind Australia.
“Australia are one of the best teams in Asia, with great professional players that play in big leagues,” Carrasco recently told Australia’s SBS The World Game website.
“We see the match as one more chance to earn experience and an opportunity for our young team to earn credit in front of our fans. We are looking forward to this match and see where we are.”
While Kuwait has so far played five matches this year – including this week’s 4-1 win over Malaysia – compared to none for Australia, Carrasco did not think that gave his side an advantage over the 2015 AFC Asian Cup champions.
He said: “Obviously, there’s a difference but I don’t think we can say it may give us an advantage. When you see the Aussie squad list, I don’t think any football person would say we could have an advantage.
“Most teams have been struggling. Our plans have been adjusted many times, our league was stopped a couple of times, and some of our main players are still with their clubs. But as a coach I would never make this an excuse.
“(The coronavirus disease) COVID-19 (pandemic) changed everything. We played five matches but had very little training. Our team is very young, and we are in the process of building for the next decade ... this is our main focus,” he added.
The coach pointed out that the damage inflicted by the bans could not be undone in a short period of time.
“We all need to understand that Kuwaiti football stopped for two years due to a FIFA ban (for government interference in the sport) and this affected our football from its foundation,” he said.
“We are now trying to get our game back to where it belongs. Kuwait has a great football history and now it’s all about growing and improving day by day.”
This team is unlikely to match the feats of the godfathers of the game in Kuwait from the 1970s and 1980s, who stand alone as the true golden generation of Kuwaiti football.
But given the turmoil of the past two decades, an appearance in the final round of qualifying – which brings with it qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in China in 2023 – would be a massive boost for a country that was once the beating heart of football in the region.