For Kuwait, it’s all about rebuilding
After a two-year suspension from football, Kuwait is on a long rebuilding journey says midfielder Fahad Al-Ansari15 October 2018 | Paul Williams
Australia last played Kuwait in the opening match of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Melbourne back in January 2015.
Despite the visitors taking the lead, the Socceroos bounced back to record a convincing 4-1 win to get their campaign - ultimately a successful one - off to a winning note.
In the 1,375 days that have followed, the fortunes of both nations have gone in polar opposite directions.
The Socceroos would go on to be crowned Asian champions, and qualify for a fourth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Kuwait limped out of the tournament in Australia without a win and despite a promising start to FIFA World Cup qualification, when they won three and drew one of their opening five games, their suspension by FIFA that lasted more than 24 months halted any momentum and sent Kuwaiti football plummeting.
In an interview last year just before the FIFA suspension was lifted, Kuwaiti midfielder Talal Al-Fadhel put into words the despair that was felt by the players.
“It’s had a huge effect both at home and abroad,” he told Arab News.
“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.”
Al-Fadhal, who was a member of the 23-man squad at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup but didn’t see any game time, will line up against Australia on Tuesday morning (AEDT), but at 28 has potentially missed his last chance to play at an Asian Cup.
Someone who almost certainly has missed that chance is veteran defender Fahad Al-Ansari (right).
The 31-year-old midfielder will be 36 when the 2023 Asian Cup is held in either South Korea or China, and he told Football Today from Kuwait City that he is unsure whether he can continue to playing at that level for another five years.
“Of course I wish to play for the national team for a long time,” he said. “But I don’t know if I could be able to give more for a long time.”
Al-Ansari, who this season joined Al-Faisaly in Saudi Arabia having spent the previous two seasons at Saudi giants Al Ittihad, is one player who suffered greatly from the 26-month hiatus from international football.
In the prime of his career as a 28-year-old, and with another Asian Cup in sight under Tunisian coach Nabil Maaloul, who only took charge of Kuwait just two weeks before the 2015 Asian Cup, things were looking bright for the impressive midfielder.
But the FIFA suspension halted all of that.
“It was the worst period that came across Kuwaiti football history,” he told Football Today. “It also affects the ambition of the players, (and) it had a negative effect on the Kuwaiti clubs.”
One of those clubs was Al-Ansari’s Al-Qadsia, Kuwait’s most successful club with a record 17 domestic league titles and 16 Emir Cups, who were on track for back-to-back AFC Cup titles in 2015 before the suspension took place, which saw them disqualified from the tournament having just won the first leg of their semi final against Malaysia’s JDT 3-1.
After a three-year absence, Al-Qadsia will return to continental action in 2019 having qualified for the AFC Cup.
Having recently joined Al-Faisaly, Al-Ansari is unlikely to be there with them for their return, but his focus for now is on the match against Australia and returning his country to their former glory.
He knows Australia present a tough test for a transitional Kuwaiti side, but he is confident Al-Azraqcan provide a tough test for the Socceroos as they have done in the past. Australia has played Kuwait five times since joining the AFC in 2006, and the record is split evenly – two wins apiece and one draw.
Interestingly, Australia has never won against Kuwait in Kuwait, with their previous two encounters ending in a 2-0 win for the home side (in 2006) and a 2-2 draw (in 2010).
In fact Al-Ansari started for Kuwait the last time they defeated Australia – a 1-0 win in an Asian Cup qualifier in Canberra in 2009.
“Although the Australian team is different from the Asian Cup (in 2015), it has excellent players and I think Australia has the ability to handle this important period of change for itself,” he said.
“(But) Kuwait has always been a difficult opponent (and) we have a new coach who wishes to push Kuwait up in the FIFA classification.”
That new coach is Croatian Romeo Jozak, who ironically enough was in the running to replace Han Berger as FFA technical director back in 2014.
Considered the architect of Croatia’s current youth development system, overseeing the development of the likes of Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren, Jozak faces a tough challenge in Kuwait, having also taken on the job as the coach of the country’s Olympic team as they seek to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
While the rest of the continent, well half of it anyway, prepares for the upcoming Asian Cup in the UAE, Kuwait has to look on with envy as it tries to lift itself from its current FIFA ranking of 159. At one point they dropped as low as 189.
With no major international tournaments to look forward to until at least 2022 should they qualify for the World Cup, the priority now is developing a team that is capable of competing in qualifying when that gets underway next year.
Key to that is recording as many wins as possible in their upcoming friendlies to continue their gradual climb back up the FIFA rankings, to ensure they get a more comfortable draw when the groups are drawn for World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying next year.
Al-Azraq are undefeated in their last four international matches and last week ended the 16-match unbeaten run of Lebanon with a 1-0 win in Kuwait City thanks to a wonderful free kick from Faysal Zaid.
Al-Ansari, however, isn’t satisfied with just friendly victories.
“It is merely a moral win,” he claimed. “We need more matches and more wins.”
“Our target is to get our team up in the FIFA classification and then to prepare the team to be able to compete in competitions in the future.”
This is a Kuwait side that is far removed from their golden generation in the 1970s and 1980s, when they qualified for the World Cup and the Olympics, and won their only Asian Cup title.
Al-Ansari insists they are capable of reaching those heights again, but says it will take a long-term plan and patience.
The Socceroos present another step on that long journey.
- Kuwait v Australia, Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, Kuwait City
- Monday 15 October, 7.30pm (local time) / Tuesday 16 October, 3.30am AEDT
- Live on FOX Sports and Network TEN
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