Football

What’s next for the Azkals? Mighty Kuwait

After dispatching Sri Lanka in the first round of it World Cup qualifying campaign, the Philippine national men’s football team will move to the next round against its most formidable opponent yet: the Kuwait national football squad. The teams will play the first leg of their tie in Hawalli, a suburb of Kuwait City, on July 23, before moving to Manila for the second leg on July 28.

Despite its reputation as one of the powerhouse teams in Asia, Kuwait has had a lackluster 2011 campagin. The country’s Al-Asraq (“The Blue”) is coming off a very disappointing stint at the 2011 Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar last January, where the team lost all three of its games to end the preliminary round winless.

In its Asian Cup opener versus China, which is currently ranked 75th in the world, Kuwaiti defender Mesad Nada was sent off early in the match with a red card. Having to play with just ten men, Kuwait succumbed to the Chinese, 2-0.

After the game, the Kuwait Football Association filed a complaint against the match’s Australian referee Benjamin Williams, citing the call against Nada and the failure to award a point to its team after the Chinese goalkeeper fumbled the ball on his line.

“The mistakes made by the referee were effective and were made in a biased way,” said KFA president Sheikh Tala Fahad Al Sabah. “What happened in the match against China is not acceptable and would not occur in street matches.”

Still missing Nada against Uzbekistan (currently ranked 86th by FIFA) in its second game, Kuwait dropped a 2-1 result to the Uzbeks in a thriller.

In its last preliminary round match, the Kuwaitis had to win by three points against host Qatar to qualify for the next round of the tournament. The pressure was just too much to bear for Kuwait, who lost 3-0 to the hometown team.

The winless performance came as a shock to football observers because Kuwait was coming off a banner year in 2010. In the Asian Cup qualifiers in January last year, Kuwait held Australia, currently the No. 22 team in the FIFA rankings, to a 2-2 draw at home.

In October, Kuwait shocked current FIFA No. 50 Iran in the final to win the West Asian Football Federation Championship. To prove that its victory was no fluke and to assert its position as one of the football powerhouses in the region, Kuwait followed up its performance with another championship two months later in the 2010 Gulf Cup of Champions, defeating Saudi Arabia, which is currently ranked 92nd in the world by FIFA.

But the grueling schedule for Kuwait came at a price; after its disappointing Asian Cup stint, which started barely a month after the end of the Gulf Cup tournament, Kuwait’s Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic admitted that the grind had worn down his team.

“Our team maybe did not have much energy and power to compete,” he said. “Generally you saw all Gulf countries that played in the Gulf Cup of Nations did not perform well [in the Asian Cup], especially my team. It is very difficult to maintain the same form.”

The Kuwait team that the Azkals will be facing, however, will be well-rested. Its last outing was a series of friendlies against neighbors Jordan and Iraq back in March, so a fresh Kuwait squad should be able to regain the form that made it a football terror in the Middle East in 2010.

That means that when the Philippine team faces Kuwait in the second round of World Cup qualifiers, the Azkals will be back to its familiar underdog status – a role that the team, curiously, hasn’t played since the semifinal of the 2010 ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup against Indonesia in December.

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