Kuwait had signaled their status as one of the rising powers of Asian football in 1976 in reaching the final of the AFC Asian Cup on their debut appearance and, on home soil four years later, the Gulf state was to go one step further.
Once again the size of the competition increased, with 10 teams granted places at the Finals as Kuwait were joined by champions Iran as well as two-time champions Korea Republic, China PR, Bangladesh, Malaysia, DPR Korea, Qatar, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
The tournament was the first to feature multiple teams from West Asia and it was to kick-start a prolonged period of dominance by countries from the region.
It was so nearly not the case, however, as Kuwait only narrowly squeezed through to the semi-finals after a second-place finish in the group phase behind the Koreans and just ahead of Malaysia, while Iran and DPR Korea secured the places available from Group A.
That outcome, however, allowed the hosts the opportunity to take revenge on the Iranians for their final defeat four years earlier, and Faisal Al Dakhil’s 85th minute winner saw Kuwait advance and end Iran’s remarkable run of AFC Asian Cup success.
In the final the Kuwaitis met a Korea Republic side that had defeated them 3-0 in the group phase but, having learned the lessons from that loss, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s team turned the tables on the east Asians, with Al Dakhil scoring twice in a 3-0 win.
As defending champions and having securing a place at the Finals of the 1982 FIFA World Cup, the Kuwaitis went into the 1984 edition of the tournament among the favourites.
Played in Singapore, the eighth edition of the competition featured a new arrival: Saudi Arabia made their AFC Asian Cup debut and sparked off a run of success that is unparalleled in the history of the tournament.
Progress to the final in their inaugural showing was the first of five consecutive appearances in the competition’s deciding game, a feat that has yet to be matched.
Saudi Arabia’s path to their first title saw them advance from Group B ahead of the Kuwaitis before a penalty shootout win over Iran set them up to meet China PR, who defeated the defending champions in the last four, in the final.
Goals from Shaye Al Nafisah and Majed Abdullah secured Saudi Arabia’s first AFC Asian Cup title and a second was to follow four years later in Qatar, when the Gulf state defeated Korea Republic to become the first nation to successfully defend the title since Iran’s win in 1976.
That second successive title set Saudi Arabia up for a shot at matching Iran’s three-peat as the tournament moved to Japan for the first time.
The east Asian nation had been a latecomer to the upper echelon of the continental game, with the country making their first appearance at the AFC Asian Cup in 1988 and was awarded the hosting rights for the 1992 Finals.
Few expected the Japanese to make much of a mark after finishing bottom of their group in Qatar, so it came as a surprise when they advanced to the last four ahead of the United Arab Emirates, who featured many of the players who had participated at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Iran and DPR Korea.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, remained on track for a third straight title with a first place finish in their group as they progressed alongside China PR before booking their place in the final with a 2-0 win over the UAE.
The Saudis were just 90 minutes away from a record-equalling win and only the hosts stood in their way after Hans Ooft’s team notched up a 3-2 victory over the Chinese to take Japan into their first-ever final.
Against all the odds, though, Takuya Takagi scored the only goal at the Big Arch Stadium in Hiroshima to give Japan a shock win and provide a precursor for the next major shift in Asian football.
That, though, would be eight years away. In the meantime, the Saudis were desperate to restore themselves to a position of preeminence and, in the UAE in 1996, they set about proving that the outcome four years earlier had been little more than a blip.
Newly expanded to 12 teams,1996 saw Uzbekistan make their debut appearance at the Finals. But despite the new faces, Asian football was greeted by the familiar sight of the Saudis once again hoisting the trophy after the final.
This time, though, was to be different. While Nelo Vingada’s side prevailed over the hosts in a penalty shootout in the final, a changing of the guard was under way once again that would finally see the balance of power swing back towards the east.