Kuwait footballing history shaped by political winds

Decades have passed since Kuwait`s halcyon days as a powerhouse of Asian soccer, but the tiny Gulf nation has retained its clout as a major player in the sport`s labyrinthine politics.

Reuters| Updated: Jan 09, 2015, 12:39 PM IST
Kuwait footballing history shaped by political winds

Melbourne: Decades have passed since Kuwait`s halcyon days as a powerhouse of Asian soccer, but the tiny Gulf nation has retained its clout as a major player in the sport`s labyrinthine politics.

Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah holds no official title with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), but the Olympic Council of Asia boss may be the game`s most influential powerbroker after FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

The support of Sheikh Ahmad was seen as vital in Bahraini Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa`s successful bid for the AFC presidency in 2013 and his support may yet prove decisive in next year`s FIFA presidential election.

The surprise candidacy of Jordan`s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein announced this week has electrified the run-off, which had previously appeared destined to end with a fifth consecutive term in office for incumbent Sepp Blatter.

Although Sheikh Ahmad has publicly backed Blatter, 39-year-old Prince Ali has several months to change his mind before the election at the May congress in Zurich.

Domestically, Kuwait`s ruling al-Sabah family, of which Sheikh Ahmad is a member, has long laid a heavy hand on national soccer affairs, sometimes to the annoyance of FIFA.

The world governing body twice banned the nation from all international soccer activities in 2007-08 due to government interference in the running of the sport and for failing to hold general elections.

The bans were brief, however, and in 2010 the team went on to win a record 10th Gulf Cup of Nations, a Middle Eastern tournament Kuwait has dominated. 

Perhaps the most colourful government intervention in Kuwait`s soccer history was at their sole World Cup appearance in the 1982 finals when football association boss Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah stormed onto the pitch during the team`s group match against France.

Trailing 3-1, Kuwait heard a whistle from the crowd that they thought was the referee blowing for an infringement and stopped playing, allowing France to score an easy goal.

Sheikh Fahad threatened to take his players off the pitch, prompting referee Myroslav Stupar to controversially cancel the goal to the disgust of the French, who still ended up winning 4-1.

A senior military officer like most of his male brethren, Sheikh Fahad would later die defending his family`s Dasman Palace during Iraq`s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Kuwait`s sole Asian Cup triumph, as hosts in 1980, was also overshadowed by political rancour.

A week into the tournament, Iraq invaded Iran in the first act of a war that would last over eight years, casting a cloud over the Iranian camp at the tournament.

Kuwait have proved unable to win a second Asian Cup since their win on home soil, but soccer remains an obsession for both the public and the country`s ruling family, who have little patience for failure.

Brazilian Jorvan Vieira guided Iraq to the 2007 title but was dumped as Kuwait`s coach after their disappointing Gulf Cup in November.

Former Tunisian international Nabil Maaloul was appointed in December and has had only three weeks to prepare the 124th-ranked team before their tough opener against Australia on Friday. They also play South Korea and Oman in Group A.

"We feel very big pressure, especially (because) the national team just played a very badly in the Gulf Cup," Maaloul told reporters through a translator.

"We hope that this pressure turns into a positive pressure."