(This story was first published in September 2017)
The World Cup, before the onset of the age of Internet and blanket football coverage in the 1990s, still had the power to genuinely leave audiences in awe. For football fans around the world, it was a wondrous time, an opportunity to witness in action players you might have only read about, and discover ones you’d never even heard of.
Not many people outside Italy and Argentina were familiar with Paolo Rossi or Mario Kempes before the 1978 World Cup. Four years later, the name of Diego Maradona was the one on everyone’s lips, but most football lovers around the world had little access to watching him on television regularly before he made his World Cup debut against Belgium.
Great footballers like Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi captured our collective imagination through World Cup heroics.
Even the rare, fleeting pleasures of football’s “one-hit-wonders” like Josimar at Mexico 86 and Salvatore “Totò” Schillaci four years later, still live in the memory.
It was the same with teams. North Korea in 66, Algeria in 82, Cameroon in 90. All arrived unknown, all departed World Cup legends.
Kuwait should have been one of them.
The Golden Generation
Mention Kuwait and the World Cup to football fans of a certain age and one incident will inevitably come to mind. For those who don’t know, an online search will bring up exactly the same incident.
It is unfortunate, and unfair, that Kuwait’s notorious match against France at the 1982 World Cup in Spain has tarnished the reputation of what was, and remains, one of the most formidable national teams to come out of Asia.
Kuwait had a wonderfully talented group of players that had charmed Middle East and Gulf football fans throughout the 1970s and early 80s under the guidance of legendary Brazilian coaches Mario Zagalo (1976-78) and Carlos Alberto Parreira (1978-82).
The likes of goalkeeper Ahmad Tarabulsi, Abdulaziz Al Anbari, Hamad Abu Hamad, goal machine Jassem Yaqoub, the gangly Fathi Kameel, captain Saad Al Houti and the brilliant Faisal Al Dakhil, were more than football players. They were cultural icons, courted by the country’s leadership and celebrities.
The events of June 21, 1982 in Valladolid, brought an abrupt, sorry end to the story of perhaps the finest of the region’s so-called golden generations.
A lasting legacy
Kuwait were the first of the Gulf countries to make an impact on international football.
The first three Gulf Cup of Nation editions – Bahrain (1970), Saudi Arabia (1972) and Kuwait (1974) – were all won by “Al Azrag”, the Blue.
It was, however, by winning the 1976 tournament in Qatar, which included for the first time a brilliant Iraq team, that Kuwait established themselves as a formidable team not just in the Gulf or Middle East, but also across Asia.
Two matches against Iraq – whom they would develop a fierce and borderline violent rivalry with – stood out. The first was the 2-2 draw during the round-robin stage, and the second a memorable 4-2 in the play-off final, which clinched their fourth consecutive Gulf Cup.
That year Kuwait also lost the AFC Asian Cup final to Iran in Tehran, but came back four years later to win the continent’s premier competition at home by beating South Korea 3-0.
There was also qualification to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, where Kuwait reached the quarter final.
By any measure, they were the best team in Asia when the 1982 World Cup qualifiers came round.
Progress from the AFC first round group stage was achieved comfortably by Parriera’s men, though the final round-robin qualifying group looked trickier with New Zealand, China and Saudi Arabia standing in the way.
Kuwait would end up winning the group, though the qualification will be remembered for two infamous matches against the Kiwis.
Before their meeting in Auckland on 10 October 1981, a banner with the staggeringly inappropriate message of “Stick to ya camels” was paraded in front of 21,000 fans at Mt Smart Stadium.
— Ahdaaf (@ahdaafme) May 9, 2017
The Kuwaitis were incensed, but it was New Zealand who took the lead through Steve Woodin on 24 minutes. The second half was all about referee Sudarso Hardjowasito, who awarded Kuwait a controversial penalty for handball, only for Richard Wilson to save it. Minutes later, another disputed penalty was given to the visitors.
After a pitch invader threw a can at the referee, play was held up for nine minutes.
This time, Al Dakhil dispatched the penalty, and to rub salt into New Zealand’s wounds, Yacoub scored a last minute winner.
In the return match in Kuwait, the home team paraded a herd of camels on the athletics track of Al Qadisiyah Stadium before the kick-off, in response to the jibes endured in the first encounter.
Fathi Kameel’s 41st-minute lead saw the home side lead at half-time, but two goals by Steve Summer and Wynton Rufer gave New Zealand a 2-1 lead. Kuwait, however, were not to be denied, Sami Al Hashash’s last minute header breaking New Zealand hearts yet again, though the Kiwis would qualify to Spain too after overcoming China in a play-off.
In hindsight, Kuwait were dealt a horribly difficult group at the World Cup. Czechoslovakia had been European Champions only six years earlier, a solid England team would end up going through the competition unbeaten, and France would prove one of the revelations of Spain 82.
Yet such was the confidence coursing through the team and the expectation of the fans, that there was feeling that this Kuwait team could genuinely cause an upset and progress to the second round.
As the World Cup approached, Parreira’s men were on the crest of a wave. The country had embraced the slogan, and accompanying song, ‘Our camel is a winner’.
Kuwait’s first ever World Cup match on June 17, 1982 at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla in Valladolid, was against the weakest of the European trio, Czechoslovakia. Here was an opportunity for a team with the element of surprise on their side to put some points on the board.
It did not start well. Czechoslovakia took the lead with a penalty from Antonin Panenka (yes, him), though on this occasion it was not a trademark Panenka penalty.
But rather than deflate the debutants, it liberated them. Kuwait simply went for broke in the second half and on 57 minutes the golden boy of Kuwaiti football, Al Dakhil, scored a viciously swerving shot from outside the area, though Zdenek Hruska’s attempt at a save was dismal.
A 1-1 draw in their first ever World Cup outing left the Kuwaitis buoyant, and if anything, even more confident for their second match against France, who had lost their opener 3-1 to a Bryan Robson-inspired England.
Little did the Kuwaitis, in an unfamiliar red and white kit, realise that when they stepped out onto pitch at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla on June 21, that they were about to walk into a storm, one from which one of the greatest football teams of all time would be born.
France, with Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, and Jean Tigana in imperious form, simply destroyed Kuwait. Goals from Bernard Genghini in the 31st minute, Platini (43) and Didier Six (48), left the Gulf nation’s World Cup campaign, and their confidence, in tatters.
This was a level of opposition Kuwait’s golden generation had not experienced before; a considerable step up from the Olympics and an unforgiving one from the Asian and Gulf encounters they had experienced.
But things were about to get a lot worse for Kuwait.
There was a brief moment of respite for the Gulf nation. Abdullah Al Buloushi’s header on 75 minutes gave the scoreline a respectability that Kuwait should have gratefully accepted.
Then came one of the most controversial moments in World Cup history, and one that continues to haunt Kuwaiti football to this day.
As the match trudged to its inevitable conclusion, Giresse scored what looked to be a legitimate fourth for France. The Kuwaitis claimed offside.
The referee signalled a goal. Perceiving an injustice, the head of the Kuwaiti Football Federation, Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah made his way down to the pitch to remonstrate with the match officials. As Parreira watched helplessly from the sideline, Al Sabah, threatening to abandon the match, gestured to the Kuwaiti players to walk off the pitch.
The referee, astonishingly, reversed his decision and the match was resumed with a drop ball. The disbelieving French players did eventually score a fourth through Maxime Bossis in the final minute.
In many ways, Kuwaiti football’s reputation never fully recovered from that moment.
There was still a final match against England at the San Mames in Bilbao to be played. A meek, demoralised Kuwaiti team, again playing in red, was urecognisable from the blue wave that had swept aside all-comers in Asia.
Trevor Francis’s strike gave Ron Greenwood’s team a 1-0 win. Kuwait, it was clear, couldn’t leave Spain quickly enough.
The 1982 World Cup in Spain was symbolically the end of Kuwait’s greatest football era. Most of the golden generation were coming to the end of their careers or had retired, while a few, like Al Dakhil soldiered on for a few more years.
There were further Gulf Cup triumphs in 1986 and 1990, but Kuwait would never again come close to reaching the World Cup finals.
After the devastation of the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991, Kuwait had a fleeting football revival that saw them claim the 1996 and 1998 Gulf Cups. A genuine renaissance, however, proved a mirage.
Relentless political interference has seen the national team banned by Fifa on several occasions, and the country is nothing short of a footballing pariah state today.
Not surprisingly in these sad times, Kuwaitis often look back to the achievements of Al Dakhil, Yaqoub, Al Anbari and the rest of the golden generation.
If only the rest of the world could look past the 1982 World Cup “incident”.