Waleed Ali’s recent admission to the century club made him the sixth Kuwaiti player to reach the milestone of 100 international caps. The 30-year-old playmaker, who made his 106th appearance against Korea Republic last September, will need all his experience as his side battle to progress from Group B in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Though Ali had to sit out Kuwait’s last game against Lebanon in Beirut last month, he is looking forward to next week’s decisive return match against the Lebanese in Kuwait City. FIFA.com spoke to the midfielder about winning his 100th cap, the upcoming clash with Lebanon and the progress football has made in Kuwait in recent years.
FIFA.com: After winning the 2010 Gulf Cup, Kuwait’s performance at this year’s AFC Asian Cup was disappointing. Why do you think that was?
Waleed Ali: The team’s coaching staff and management have been pretty stable since 2009, and regardless of the results from the Asian Cup the actual performance wasn’t that bad at all. We played well in the first game but were guilty of committing a few errors, while in the second, against Uzbekistan, we easily matched them and were the better side, yet we somehow lost. With our dream of qualifying having by then gone up in smoke, we never had much of a chance going into the third fixture.
Kuwait have made a strong start to its FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, beating UAE and drawing against Korea Republic and Lebanon. How do see the side’s chances in the last three games?
We’re halfway through with three matches left to play, and all four teams still have a hope of progressing, even UAE, who are yet to win a point. Korea Republic are in the strongest position but there’s real competition between the sides. Take our game against Lebanon in Beirut, for example. That hung in the balance until the dying minutes (when Kuwait made it 2-2).
Your team have a big game next week against Lebanon. How important is this particular game to you?
Well, it’s vital for both teams. Lebanon will be coming to Kuwait to win and move up the Group B table. I think their playing away from home could be an advantage for them, whereas we’re playing in front of our supporters so we’ll be under a lot more pressure. We have to be very focussed going into the match.
The draw with Korea Republic was a good result given that your side weren’t expected to get anything from that game…
We needed to face a strong team from east or central Asia to prove to everybody how far football has come in our country, and I think we did just that in this particular game. We were the better side and we could easily have come away with all three points.
You recently entered the history books by reaching the 100-cap mark. What did the achievement mean to you personally?
It was great, to be honest. Every player loves to represent his country, so you can imagine how it feels to do it 100 times? It was a milestone for me and an honour. I’ve made the century club list on FIFA.com and I intend to win even more. It’s a wonderful honour and I’m delighted to have made the club!
Do you still remember your first game for Kuwait?
It was a friendly against Germany and Oliver Kahn and Oliver Bierhoff were playing for them. I was pretty young and it was a dream come true to face opponents I’d watched on television. I still remember that I took the first shot of the match, about five minutes into the game, though we lost in the end because we didn’t have as settled a team as we do now.
If Kuwait qualify for Brazil 2014 you’ll be 33 when the finals come round. Do you want to keep playing and adding your tally of caps?
Of course! Imagine if Kuwait made it to Brazil and I never got to play in the greatest football tournament of all. In my opinion you play your best football at that age, because you’re so much more experienced. Lots of players over 30 have taken part in the World Cup before.
Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic has had some exceptional results with Kuwait. How do you see him as a coach and what’s the secret of his success?
The most important factor in any coach’s success is his relationship with the players, and right now there’s a great bond between Goran and the boys. He knows the players inside out and also knows what they are capable of, so it’s easy for him to handle them. Not only that, but the coaching staff and management are very settled right now, which has given us the freedom to perform on the pitch and win titles. Coach Goran has been with us for more than 50 games and has only two defeats on his record. That’s quite an achievement.
Kuwait football has taken huge strides in the last two years. Why is this?
As players we’re pushing for wholesale professionalism in Kuwait, but the real key to the revival of the game here is stability in the administrative and coaching set-ups. Another important thing is that the team have remained more or less unchanged, which gives us the opportunity to gel on the pitch. If more of these measures can be brought in and we continue down the same road, then Kuwaiti football will have a bright future.