FEATURE: Kuwait’s golden night

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The celebrations lasted long into the night. The national team, having come so close four years previous when they finished runners-up, had finally reached the pinnacle of Asian football, defeating , who they had lost to in the group stage, to be crowned Asian champions for the very first time, and on home soil no less.

This is not the story of Australia in 2015, however, but of in 1980.

While their performances at the most recent Asian Cup in Australia in January left a lot to be desired, in the 1970s and early 1980s Kuwait were the undisputed kings of Asia.

The honour roll is extensive and impressive – five Gulf Cups (1970, ’72, ’74, ’76 and ’82), Quarter Finalist at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, qualification for the 1982 FIFA World Cup and, of course, victory in the 1980 .

After falling at the final hurdle against Iran in 1976, Kuwait was determined to make amends on home soil.

“Yes (we were confident) because we had very good players, and we had a very good preparation camp in Germany where we played friendly matches with big teams such as Bayern Munich,” captain Saad Al-Houti told Football Channel Asia.

“The big support that we had from our government, fans and media, together with our self confidence, all those reasons helped us to put in a good performance.”

The tournament started well enough with a win and a draw from their opening two games, before suffering a heavy 3-0 loss against a powerful South Korean side. It was a victory that gave the Korean side a lot of confidence according to the tournament’s leading goal scorer, Choi Soon-ho.

“(We) changed the coach only about five months before (the tournament started),” he told Football Channel Asia. “Therefore, it was a big challenge for all of us and the first major tournament with the squad. In that context, winning against Kuwait gave us lots of confidence as a team.”

The result was a hard one to take for Al-Houti and his Kuwaiti team mates.

“It was a painful defeat for us,” Al-Houti, now an analyst for beIN Sport, said.

It was a defeat that would knock the confidence of any side, but as Al-Houti recalls they were able to move on from the defeat quite quickly and confidence was restored with a 4-0 thumping of Qatar in their final group game.

“We dealt (with) the effect of this defeat due to our expertise and our Football Federation, which was able to deal with the defeat excellently from a psychological aspect,” he said.

That set up a semi final clash with Iran, their nemesis four years earlier, and two second-half goals from the deadly strike duo of Faisal Al-Dakhil and Jasem Yaqoub set up the win for Al-Azraq, although a late goal to Hossein Faraki in the 90th minute made for a nervous ending.

South , meanwhile, had to navigate a tricky semi final against bitter rivals North .

“(We were a) bit nervous and frightened (because) socially there were conflicts between the two Koreas,” Choi, now a vice-president of the Korea Football Association, declared.

“It was really hard game in terms of fitness. (The) North Korean team back then was known as better than us in quality of squad, experience, tactical knowledge and so forth. So we were not sure we would win that game.”

Those doubts were exacerbated when their northern neighbours took an early lead after Pak Jong-Hun converted a penalty in the 19th minute.

However, spurred on by a vocal crowd of Korean expats – “there were lots of Korean labourers working for Kuwaiti projects back then,” Choi recalls – two goals in the final ten minutes from 21-year-old striker Chung Hae-won won the game for the Taeguk Warriors, setting up a re-match against Kuwait in the final.

The big question going into that game, played just two days after the semi finals, was how would Kuwait overcome a side that had beaten them so comprehensively just a week earlier?

“The plan was changed,” Al-Houti, now 61, recalls. “Our coach Mr. Carlos (Alberto Parreira) studied the Korean team very well, and he developed the style and set the appropriate way (we would play).

“We dealt with them from the beginning of the game in a different way from the previous match, and the tactic of playing also was changed.”

The changes worked.

Kuwait pressed hard and the jam-packed stands at the Sabah Al-Salem Stadium in Kuwait City were rocking as early as the eighth minute when Al-Houti put the home side ahead.

“I was one of the happiest guys because I scored the first goal,” Al-Houti explained.

While Kuwait celebrated, it was heartbreak for Korea.

“Conceding the first goal of the game, the players were shaken,” Choi explained. “We tried our best to turn the tables around but it caused the team balance (to) collapse.”

A brace from star striker Faisal Al-Dakhil, one either side of half time, saw Kuwait complete a comfortable 3-0 victory to seal their first, and so far only, Asian Cup title.

“There is no feeling of joy like lifting the Asian Cup at our home and among our fans,” Al-Houti told Football Channel Asia.

“It was (a) wonderful (night), and the intensity of the joy of the people did not stop that night. The joy pervaded all Kuwaiti people, and lasted for several weeks.”

Thirty-five years to the day since that night, Choi still has regrets but can look back fondly after finishing with seven goals to be named the tournament’s leading scorer.

“Personally the competition was the first major tournament since I joined the national team,” he said. “It was a big challenge for me (but) I can say it was a success. I played for the national team for more than ten years after that. In my memory, the 1980 Asian Cup was the highlight of my national team career.”

Qualification for the 1982 FIFA World Cup aside, that night is as good as it has got for Kuwait, who have since struggled to reach those same heights, now ranked a lowly 18th in Asia.

Al-Houti maintains Kuwait can reach the pinnacle once again, but says more needs to be done to support the team.

The first step on that path is to qualify for the next Asian Cup in 2019 and reach the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying. With a perfect three wins from three games so far they’re certainly on the right track but their next match, next Thursday in Kuwait City, will be their biggest test to date.

And who should be standing in the way? None other than South Korea.

A victory over one of Asia’s biggest teams will have the streets of Kuwait City rocking again.