World Cup Wonder: Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah
As the globe goes football mad today with the kick-off of the 21st FIFA World Cup, I wanted to take you back to a little known day in football history when Kuwait played their third World Cup match against France (a team captained by future UEFA President and three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Michel Platini) on the 21st of June, 1982, during the 12th FIFA World Cup in Spain.
Kuwait had qualified to its first World Cup on December 14th, 1981 after topping a group containing the best teams from the Asia-Oceanic football confederations including China, Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand. Earlier thst fall, during Kuwait’s first qualifying game against the Kiwis in Auckland, some fans held up signs reading “GO BACK TO YOUR CAMELS!”
Kuwait would eventually go on to win that first game by 2 goals to 1 — a penalty by Faisal Al Dakheel canceling out an early goal by Team NZ, followed by a sudden-death winner courtesy of (the Terrifying) Jassim Yacoub. Both strikers played for Kuwait’s most popular (my) club Al-Qadsia.
A few weeks later during Kuwait’s last (home) game of the qualifiers, again against New Zealand, 100 camels were brought on the hallowed turf of the Al Qadsia Stadium as a defiant show of Kuwaiti chutzpah.
Sadly, the camel drama did not stop there.
During the summer of 1982, just a few weeks before the start of the actual World Cup, a Spanish newspaper joked (in poor taste) that the Kuwait National Team would be late to the tournament since they would be “traveling on the backs of their camels!”
In response, the charismatic Godfather of Kuwaiti sport; the late Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who was the President of the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee, Kuwaiti Football Association, and Asian Games Federation, made it a point for Kuwait to be the first team to show up in Spain. Moreover, the Kuwaiti Football Association had defiantly decided to use a camel, which they named Haydoo, as their mascot.
In fact, the Kuwaiti team arrived so early that no one, not even a single journalist, knew that the team had arrived in Spain (by plane). So to stick it back to the profligate press, Sheikh Fahad let it slip to a French journalist, who was there to cover the arrival of the French team, that “the Kuwaiti team would withdraw from the competition unless they were allowed to bring their hallowed mascot Haydoo.” Within hours the Kuwaiti team’s hotel was packed with scoop hungry reporters dying to find out more about this mysterious mascot.
At a makeshift press conference, Sheikh Fahad slyly complained that the Spanish authorities had prevented Haydoo from entering the Kingdom (of Spain) and without their humble mascot, the Kuwaiti team would be flying back home. There was no “sitting down” for this Sheikh.
Succumbing to the media frenzy, the Spanish authorities caved, with the hotel manager finally allowing the Kuwaiti team to bring in their mascot as long as it was left in the backyard of the hotel.
The next day, a beautiful North African, even-toed ungulate was shipped to Spain courtesy of the King of Morocco…but Sheikh Fahad’s public relations mastery was not quite done yet. Once the new Haydoo arrived, he was kitted out in a giant, camel sized, classic blue Kuwait National Team Football jersey, complete with cleats!
Kuwait was now ready to showcase their own version of joga bonito to the world. And they did not disappoint, a skyrocketing goal by the “King of Kuwaiti Football,” Faisal Al Dakheel, canceled out a dubious penalty during Kuwait’s first game against European powerhouse Czechoslovakia, earning Haydoo’s heroes a hard-earned 1–1 draw and their first World Cup point. D’autre part, Les Blues had lost to Bryan Robson’s England 3–1.
The Battle of Blue
The historic game between Kuwait and France had all the hallmarks of a classic. It was the classic tale of (Middle) East vs. West. Traditional finesse versus imperial power. This game would go down in World Cup history, but for an entirely different reason.
With France leading 3–1 with only 10 minutes before extra time, French midfielder Alain Giresse scored a goal vehemently contested by the Kuwaiti team who had stopped play after hearing a piercing whistle from the stands, believing it had come from Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar. Play had not yet resumed when Sheikh Fahad rushed onto the pitch (in his dishdasha and bisht) to remonstrate with the referee. Stupar countermanded his initial decision and disallowed the goal to the fury of the French. It was the first (and only time) in World Cup history that a goal was canceled, thus solidifying Sheikh Fahad’s (and Kuwait’s) place in the pantheon of World Cup wonders.
In the words of the legendary Sean Connery (narrated in the official film of the 1982 World Cup: G’olé!)