Kuwait are in a tight spot in the third round of the Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Sitting third in Group B, they have no option but to win their final game away to Korea Republic on 29 February to claim one of the two top berths and advance to the final round.
The man charged with the task of perming the right side for the daunting trip to the Far East is Goran Tufegdzic, who is doing all he can to motivate his troops for the do-or-die mission, as he explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
Absent from the final round in the qualifying competition for South Africa 2010, the Kuwaitis seemed to be well on course this time around after kicking off with an away win over United Arab Emirates and then earning a draw at home to the section-topping South Koreans last September. It all went wrong in the double-header against revelations Lebanon, however, a 2-2 draw in Beirut being followed by a hugely damaging 1-0 defeat in Kuwait City.
Costly though that reverse was for Al Azraq, coach Tufegdzic has far from given up hope: “Our chances of reaching the final World Cup qualifying round are still intact. There are two matches still to be played in the group and we remain in control of our destiny.”
Those hopes almost evaporated on a nerve-wracking Matchday 5 back in November. After learning of Lebanon’s shock home win over Korea Republic, Tufegdzic’s troops entertained the UAE in a game they had to win to stay in the running. Falling behind in the first half, they ultimately conjured up a second-half comeback, thus keeping their faltering qualification bid alive for a few more weeks.
No sooner had victory been secured over the Emiratis than coach Tufegdzic began his preparations for the Seoul showdown, a game he believes is no foregone conclusion.
“We’re in a tricky position going into the last match and we know we have to win,” he said. “But as far as I’m concerned, the fact we have to focus solely on victory is good for us. Nothing is impossible, as this qualifying group has shown. Nobody expected the South Koreans to lose in Beirut but they did, and some of the big guns have slipped up in the other groups too. We respect Korea Republic but I’m convinced my team can beat them.”
Korea Republic need only a point from the game to advance, and Kuwait's assignment will be made all the harder by the passionate backing the home side can expect from their vociferous fans. If they can silence the crowd, however, the visitors might just be able to switch the pressure on to their opponents.
Nothing is impossible. We respect Korea Republic but I’m convinced my team can beat them.
With that objective in mind, the Serbian coach has subjected his players to an intensive schedule, starting with a trip to the 2011 Pan Arab Games in December in Qatar, where the Kuwaitis failed to live up to their billing as favourites, returning home with a bronze medal after losing to Jordan.
“The tournament gave us an opportunity to prepare for the final World Cup qualifier,” explained Tufegdzic. “We had to travel without some of our leading players, but at least we had the opportunity to give everyone a game. I was satisfied with their performances and they picked up some valuable experience, especially the guys who haven’t been playing in the qualifiers.”
Kuwait’s preparations continued with a friendly against Uzbekistan, who are already safely through to the final qualifying round for Brazil 2014. “The Uzbeks took the game seriously and that had an effect on our performance,” said a satisfied Tufegdzic in reference to his side’s 1-0 win.
“There was a lot for us to take out of the match, especially from an attacking viewpoint. We created quite a few chances and eventually came up with the winner. And we also showed we can play with pace up front, which we’ll need to do against Korea Republic if we’re going to get the result we need.”
Tufegdzic’s fine-tuning will continue with a trip to China PR, where his squad will set up a training camp and play friendlies against the Chinese and Korea DPR, two sides very similar in style to Kuwait’s upcoming opponents.
The coach’s next task will be to select his side for the make-or-break encounter, the players who will carry the hopes of a nation as they seek a place in the final ten-team qualifying round. “Yes, we’ve been giving a lot of thought to the list lately,” said Tufegdzic. “The national leagues have started up and we’re watching all the players, the idea being to take only the very best to Korea Republic.
“We also want to pick the right replacements so that we can cover every eventuality at our final training camp in China. We’re focusing at the moment on getting injured players back to full fitness, and they’re all fighting hard for the honour of wearing their country’s colours.”
Tufegdzic’s charges will need to show all that fighting spirit if they are to find a way past the South Koreans and sneak into the final round. Should they fail in their venture, however, it will not be for a lack of preparation or determination.