Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Kuwait's Road To Spain In 1982 & An Indonesian Ref

I believe I may have mentioned 1982. Once or twice. It is one of those incidents that carve their name in the history books and no matter what Kuwait may achieve in years to come on a football pitch 1982 will be there somewhere, lurking in the background like an unwanted uncle at a dinner party laid on to impress people. You just know that somewhere along the line either the uncle will put in an appearance or someone will ask where he is.

Awash with oil money, Kuwait invested millions in football during the 1970s and the efforts paid off towards the end of the decade as they started making a splash not just regionally but beyond. In 1978 they appointed a Brazilian with a famous name, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to the helm of the national team.

No relation to the rampaging full back that was part of the eye catching 1970 World Cup winning squad, Parreira was one of a pretty rare bunch, certainly for the era, of managers who had never played the game professionally. He had started out as a trainer and the mid 1970s found him in the Middle East as assistant coach in Kuwait. In 1979 he was promoted to the top job and soon showed the midas touch guiding the side to runners up in the Gulf Cup of Nations in 1979, the AFC Asian Cup in 1980, GCoN success in 1982 plus of course the Spain World Cup in the same year.

I started out as a fitness coach, recalled  Parreira. But there reached a point in my life where I was so well qualified that I was almost pushed into taking on a head coach's role. In Kuwait they asked me to take charge of their youth sides and that was the start of a long career.’

Kuwait’s road to Spain began appropriately enough in Kuwait. Drawn with South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand Kuwait were given hosting duties and so it was at the end of April the three nations plus assorted match officials descended on Kuwait International Airport.

The Blues first game came against the Thais and they ran out comfortable 6-0 winners with goals from Abdulaziz Al Anbari (Al Kuwait) scoring twice. Faisal Al Dakheel (Al Qadsia), Fathi Kameel (Al Tadamun) M Karam (Al Arabi) and Jasem Yacoub (Al Qadsia) finished the rout and left the home team sitting pretty on top of the table after the first game.

South Korea were nowhere near the power they are now back in 1981 but they were always favourite to come there or thereabouts in the group. However they struggled to break down a plucky Malaysian side, even falling behind in the first 10 minutes. Unfortunately the Malaysians failed to build on that early lead and appeared to wilt in the Arabian heat. It needed Jung Haw-wong to save their blushes, netting the winner with a long range effort with just five minutes remaining.

The Malaysian coach was furious. Karl-Heinz Weigang slammed his players saying ‘I can understand if only one or two players were to play badly but in this game it was the exact opposite, only one or two players gave their all.’

It was hardly the best preparation to face the hosts three days later who were fully acclimatized and comical defending by the Malaysians allowed Kuwait to take the lead in the first minute of the first half through Al Qadsia’s 23 year old striker Jasem Yaquob making it two in two for him. Nassir Al Ghanim from Kazma weighed in with one while Mahboub Juma hit a brace and after the comfortable victory Parreira said ‘as expected Malaysia was too adamant about chasing goals and we only had to wait for them to make any mistakes to launch our offensive move.’ A wait of less than 60 seconds!

The win confirmed Kuwait’s position at the top of the group but on goal difference as South Korea had beaten the Thais 5-1 24 hours earlier in a game refereed by the superbly named Hardjowasito from Indonesia. For the cunning linguists out there the Indonesian word for referee is wasit!

When Malaysia met Thailand on 27 April their World Cup was over and they played out a thrilling though futile 2-2 draw.

Everything hung on the final match up between Kuwait and South Korea two days later. They were level on points but the home team had by far the better goal difference. Second half goals from Al Anbari and Al Ghanen secured their spot in the next round of fixtures which would take them to the other side of the world six months later.

By now there were four nations vying to represent Asia at the World Cup the following year. Joining Kuwait were New Zealand, who had overcome Australia, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei and Fiji, China and Saudi Arabia over a three month period.

Kuwait’s first game came on 10 October in Auckland, New Zealand and if they showed any signs of tiredness or nerves after a long journey to the Land of The Long White Cloud they didn’t last for long. The early 1980s were not known for their political correctness and as the Kuwaiti side came on the pitch in Auckland home supporters were reportedly waving banners that said ‘Go Back to Your Camels’. As an aside, New Zealand’s home qualifiers were sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer!

The home team took the lead halfway through the first half when English born Steve Wooddin scored with a fine left foot volley from 18 yards out but Kuwait were given the chance to level things early in the second half when they were avoided a soft penalty.

The New Zealand keeper made a good save but less than 10 minutes later the ref, our friend Hardjowasito from Indonesia, gave a second penalty, even softer than the first.  Players went wild, fans went wild.

The ref walked off the pitch and threatened to call off the tie complaining about the lack of security. New Zealand FA official Charles Dempsey got involved, telling the ref If you call this game off, it's the last game you will referee, He looked at my Fifa badge - he had no idea what my position was - and I added: 'I'm warning you. Call this game off and you have had it.

'I had no authority to say that because I was not the match inspector. But I had to bluff it.'

Before Al Daheel could step up and take the kick a young supporter ran on the pitch and threw a can at the match official before disappearing into the record 35,000 crowd who offered him a standing ovation

Kiwi assistant coach Kevin Fallon later joked the pitch invader copped a $10 fine throwing the can and a further $20 for missing but in the wake of the decisions there was no such much laughter coming from his side’s camp.

Yacoub scored the winner with a close range diving header and when the ref finally blew the whistle white helmeted policeman ran on to the pitch to protect the match officials from irate New Zealand players.

Following the game Charles Dempsey, who was the head of New Zealand football at the time hedged his bets. ‘I don’t say he was bribed, but what did concern me was the confident way the Kuwaiti Sheikh Al Sabah was talking before the game and at half time. It had best be left at that.’

Speaking years later, Wooddin, who had given New Zealand the lead, said ‘it’s hard to say he was cheating or wasn’t cheating...the bad decisions seemed to be all one way.’

Controversy, it seemed, was a constant companion on Kuwait’s march to Spain.

At the time though and without the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge we have now about match fixing while many felt the ref was culpable, they were not too many who would come out and say he had been bribed. Match officials were still deemed to be human and without the 24/7 coverage the game gets these days people were more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when it came to controversial decisions.

A week later and Kuwait were in Beijing taking on China and they lost 3-0. On 4 November they were in Riyadh and defeated hosts Saudi Arabia 1-0 with that man Al Anberi scoring again.

Kuwait then had the luxury of three successive home games spread over a two week period. Al Anberi scored the only goal of the game against China and they followed that with a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia with a pair from Al Dakhil as good as securing Kuwait’s spot in Spain.

Their final game came against New Zealand with 100 camels walking around the pitch before the game as a riposte to some of the comments directed towards the Kuwaitis in the first game in Auckland and as a way of saying ‘yep, camels’.

With moments remaining it was the visitors who were leading 2-1 but 22 year old defender Sami Al Hashash from Al Arabi levelled the scores and ensured history would be made for Kuwait.

When the draw was made for the World Cup Finals early in 1982 Kuwait found themselves alongside England, France and Czechoslovakia at a time when 24 teams vied for the crown.

Ahead of the finals a Spanish newspaper decided to go down the road of cheap stereotypes and claimed the Kuwaitis would be arriving late because they ‘would be travelling on the backs of their camels’. I am sure you can imagine what a hoot that particular joke was, even for those times.

As it turned out Kuwait arrived early but no one knew they were even there. The head of the football association Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, a member of the country’s ruling family, told a French journalist he would be taking Kuwait home if he wasn’t allowed to bring their mascot with them.

Interest finally piqued by these exotic visitors, the media converged on the hotel. The Sheikh ordered a camel from Morocco and the hotel manager said it was ok for the camel to stay on the grounds of the hotel but no doubt drew the line at it using one of the rooms.

So, as a reaction to the lazy racism of the era who were these mysterious Arabs? Who were the players to watch out for and who did they play for? Time, I think, to put some flesh on the bones of the players marking their nation’s first ever tilt at the World Cup.

(Insert WC Squad)

Their first game came against the Czechs, this was before the split with Slovakia, and was played on 17 June in Valladolid. Antonin Panenka, he whose name would later be immortalised with the cheeky penalty chip down the middle, opened the scoring half way through the first half with a more traditional penalty. The prolific Al Dakhil equalised on 57 minutes and Kuwait held on for a point.

Then came the game against France at the same venue. The French were highly fancied to do well and boasted a squad that included such talismanic figues as Michel PlatiniAlain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Dominique Rocheteau. Kuwait? Well, so perceived wisdom held, had camels!

The French were leading 3-1 when Giresse broke through a static Kuwaiti defence and made it 4-1. Well, he thought he had, his team mates thought he had and so probably did most of the people watching the game around the world. The referee agreed and pointed to the centre circle.

Unfortunately the Kuwaiti players were less convinced. In fact they were positively irate, claiming they had stopped because they had heard a whistle. TV replays showed the ref waving play on as the defence stopped for a moment questioning whether Giresse was offside or not but a whistle can be heard in the footage. Thinking it had come from the ref  Kuwait did what every schoolboy around the world is taught; they played to the whistle and they stopped. And they were gobsmacked to see the ref give the goal.

They surrounded the hapless official from the Soviet Union Miroslav Stupar but, in the manner of all good match officials, he would not change his mind. With the mood getting ugly the Kuwait players were threatening to walk off the field and out of the World Cup, no doubt leaving their camel mascot at the hotel.

Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, who had been seen waving to his players as if he was trying to get them to walk off the field, got involved, striding on to the pitch and taking his turn to get Stupar’s face as the world looked on with incredulity.

Was this really happening? Was a sheikh yelling at a ref during a World Cup tie in front of millions watching around the world? This was reality TV long before Simon Cowell came along and if there had been a social media back in 1982 Twitter would have gone into overdrive!

Apart from playing to the whistle, another great adage about football and referees is that the man with the whistle is the final arbiter of what happens on a football field. If he says it was a goal then a goal it was and that was the end of the matter. Until the Sheikh got involved. The ref disallowed the goal, now angering the French players, and restarted the game with a free kick for Kuwait in their own half.

As it happened moments later France did score a fourth goal thus ending Kuwait’s adventure but unlike other nations lacking in any football pedigree (according to certain prejudices) Kuwait have never since been seen as plucky. North Korea have, Jamaica have but nope, not Kuwait. I guess it is difficult to patronise people who are richer than you are.

The Sheikh, by the way, was certainly never one to shirk conflict. He was killed on the first day of the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 during the defense of Dasman Palace, home to the Emir, ruler, of the country.

One of his sons, Ahmed Al Fahad Al Ahmed Al Sabah has kept the family name alive in the politics of world football and in 2015 was appointed to the FIFA Executive Committee in April 2015.

From the dodgy penalties in Auckland to the phantom whistler in Valladolid Kuwait had never been far from controversy which is a shame for many Kuwaitis look back on the era as their golden age in footballing terms. And they are not alone. Their Brazilian coach Parreria may have won the World Cup with his own country in 1994 with a side that boasted players like Romario and Carlos Dunga, now of course coaching the national team himself but he has fond memories of his time with the Kuwaitis.

Brazil he said were expected to win the cup even though their triumph in the USA broke a 24 year drought. Expectation were less lofty in the gulf state and Parreria remembers with pride not just the World Cup adventure but other triumphs from that successful side. ‘My best and most successful time was with Kuwait. It was amazing - we won the Gulf Cup twice, reached the Olympics and World Cup,’ he recalled in 2008.

1976 had seen Kuwait reach the Asian Cup final for the first time, only to lose 1-0 to hosts Iran but four years later they went one better. In 1980 they won the Asian Cup for the first and so far only time in their history defeating South Korea 3-0 in the final in a game interestingly enough refereed by our friend Hardjowasito! Watching the goals from that game played over 30 years ago one cannot help but be struck not just by the hairstyles of that bygone age but also how Keystone Cops the South Koreans were at defending as time and again the home team carved them apart on their way to success.

The Asian Cup 1980 featured just 10 nations, Kuwait, South Korea, holders Iran, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, North Korea, Qatar, Syria and United Arab Emirates and midway through the competition Iraq invaded Iran, the start of a long and bloody conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead. Iran, who had won the trophy in 1968, 1972 and 1976, went on to stumble in their defence of the title and finished with third place while Kuwaiti TV gleefully supported Iraq’s invasion on its channels.

In 1984 the Asian Cup moved to Singapore and it was the Kuwaitis turn to finish third, this time defeating Iran on penalties as Saudi Arabia defeated China 2-0 in the final and it seemed like Kuwait were on the verge of turning regional success into continental success.

Since the first Gulf Cup of Nations in 1970, an event featuring Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and of course Kuwait in that first year, Al Azraq had gone on to win the trophy in 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1982, finishing runners up to Iraq in 1979. The Asian Cup successes and of course reaching the World Cup in 1982 seemed to add to the sense Kuwait was becoming a major player in world football but for all the success there seems to be little analysis of what made them so successful, at least in English. 

NOTE - this was to form the genesis of a chapter in an aborted book I proposed to write about football in the Gulf during my spell there.

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