Kuwait automatically progressed to Asia's third stage of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ as Bhutan withdrew from the preliminary round. Despite this, the team will have their work cut out if they want to keep pace with Asia's best and book a ticket to their first FIFA World Cup since 1982.
The early 1980's proved to be Kuwait's golden era, when they clinched the continental title for the first time with a 3-0 thrashing of Korea Republic in the 1980 AFC Asian Cup final, before they forced their way through to reach the 1982 FIFA World Cup finals as the sole Asian representative.
Since then things have changed with Kuwait making little impression at Asia's top level. A fourth place in the 1996 Asian Cup and a silver medal in the 1998 Asian Games are their most significant achievements since 1980. Lack of consistency in performance was attributed to their disappointing results in the qualifying competition for the FIFA World Cup, a point borne out in their bid for Korea/Japan 2002, when they failed even to advance to Asia's final qualifying stage.
They did better in qualifying for Germany 2006 four years later, eliminating arch-rivals China to reach the final round. But with only one point against group favorites Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic, Kuwait were left without any hopes of an automatic place. Instead they went into battle with Uzbekistan for a play-off against Bahrain and lost 3-2.
However, the lessons from continental competition over past years were not well learned as mentality remains a problem for Kuwait, who have been known to choke on big occasions. In the qualifying campaign for the 2007 Asian Cup they stunned group favorites Australia with a thrilling 2-0 win, with goals from striking veterans Khalaf Al Mutairi and Bader Al Mutwaa. They needed just a point against Bahrain to advance to the decisive last match and were found lacking again, losing the game 2-1 to miss out on the continental championship finals.
The disappointing results saw Romanian coach Mihai Stoichita make way for Fawzi Ibrahim, who himself was replaced in December of 2007 by Croatian Radion Gacanin. Just as Hiddink took over Australia in qualifying for the Germany 2006 while retaining his job with Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven, Gacanin, head coach of Al Kuwait Sports, was also allowed a dual role. However, a 2-0 away defeat at the hands of UAE in the opener of the third stage of qualifying for South Africa 2010 was followed by a 2-2 home draw against Iran, and with a 1-0 loss to Syria in Damascus, the patience of the Kuwaiti Football Federation with Gacanin had run out. He was replaced by Mohammed Ibrahim in June 2008.
Ibrahim, who guided Kuwait to Asia's final round of qualifying for Germany 2006, briefly reignited their hopes by coaching the team to a 4-2 win over Syria. However, their rediscovered form deserted them too soon, as they lost the decisive penultimate match against UAE to finally end their hopes.