Kuwait’s golden era came in the 1970s, culminating in an Asian Cup win in 1980, but they’re some way off scaling those heights again.
The major issue is internal politics. There are ongoing suspicions that the royal family, one of whom is the head of the national football association, have an overtly strong influence on selection, while the domestic league remains of a poor, non-professional standard.
As if to highlight the problems, Kuwait sacked their coach barely a month out from the tournament. Jorvan Vieira won the Asian Cup with Iraq in 2007 but struggled to find cohesion with Kuwait, winning just nine of twenty-five games during his tenure. However, he did navigate them through a difficult qualifying group, losing just once in six games, and had used the Gulf Cup in November to introduce some fresh faces to the squad that could add depth to the national team in the long-term.
This wasn’t a popular decision with fans that were used to seeing good Kuwait performances in the Gulf Cup (they’ve won it an incredible ten times) and after a shockingly bad 5-0 defeat to Oman, his time was up.
In comes the Tunisian Nail Maaloul, who is something of a mystery figure. He’s only been coaching since 2011, primarily in his native country, but more recently at Qatari club side Al-Jaish. His four years of management include a spell as Tunisian head coach, which was something of a dismal failure – they didn’t make it past the first round of World Cup qualifying, leading to his resignation.
Coupled with the fact he’s only had a month to work with the Kuwaiti side, it doesn’t bode well.
As a result of all this, it’s difficult to predict exactly how Kuwait will play. They generally play a 4-2-3-1 (using that formation throughout the Gulf Cup) but the side plays with an extraordinary amount of freedom, especially in the attacking third. Fahad Al Enezi is a quick, agile dribbler capable of magic – often taking shots from range – who generally starts on the left, but drifts across the pitch as he pleases. However, there have been whispers all week that Al Enezi may not be eligible to play against the Socceroos because of passport issues, which would be a big blow to the side’s attacking threat.
In the centre will probably be the talented Bader Al-Mutawa, who emerged as an exciting Asian prospect at the 2004 Gulf Cup but hasn’t really developed as was hoped. He’s still very clever, though, playing as a second striker, and like Al Enezi, with great freedom to roam. Al-Mutawa is probably Kuwait’s best player, but he tends to switch off defensively – opponents will probably be able to bring the ball forward quite easily against Kuwait.
Aziz Mashaan is another exciting attacker. He can play in one of the deeper midfield positions, but more likely to be a #10, perhaps with Al-Mutawa further forward. Along with boasting an excellent beard, he has a clever touch and capable of incisive passes. Kuwait do have exciting attackers, and are capable of scoring spectacular goals.
The back six barely warrants discussion. The defence is functional without being overly impressive, and the fact they get such little protection from the players ahead makes it difficult to judge them as individuals. Furthermore, the back four can often appear shapeless and don’t work well as a unit. It is also important to note that in that last group game at the Gulf Cup, where Kuwait only needed a point to progress, they tried to sit very deep, to little avail – they lost 5-0.
Adding to these defensive frailties is a lack of stability in the holding midfield position, where Vieria used three different combinations at the Gulf Cup. He’s yet to settle on a combination, and Kuwait have been prone to leaving a large gap between their midfield and defence. Fortunately, given they’re quite open defensively, goalkeeper and captain Nawaf Al-Khaldi is very experienced between the sticks.
It’s entirely possible Maaloul has used the pre-tournament training camp to solidify the team’s structure, and implement a more solid defensive unit. However, given the politics, Maaloul’s own history and the nature of the players available, it’s difficult to envisage this. They’re reliant on individuals and are one of the weaker sides at the Asian Cup.