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Oliver McManus is back with another of his signature World Football articles with the focus this time on Uzbekistan.
Ah yes Uzbekistan, the White Wolves of the East, not a name you hear too often on the footballing world scene.
“Well yes Oliver, there’s probably a very good reason for that”, a voice says from behind my back in what could be mistaken as an attitude of ignorance but, I’ll forgive them for they’re not truly a footballing anorak like myself.
But then again, when you think about it, it really is rather surprising that they haven’t received as much recognition as they perhaps deserve – the last 3 years, particularly, have provided the country’s football team with an incredible story.
Uzbekistan, itself, is one of the countries that made up the Former Soviet Union and, as such, are relative latecomers to the international scene; they played their first match on the 17th June 1992, against Tajikistan.
Domestically, it was unfortunate that their best clubs were no longer in a situation where they could compete with the big guns of the Soviet Union after the split, Russia and Ukraine took most of that talent. As a result, they struggled to really get started with any momentum due to the loss of their best players and, indeed, their best competition – giving a distinct air of dilapidation in the early years.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to fast forward 12 years from their international debut – it was a pretty dull period, so you’re not really missing out – all the way to 2004, and the AFC Asian Cup, held in China.
2004 was a real sign of encouragement for the country, as they entered the Asian Cup with little expectations – no surprise really, they had failed to progress from the group stages at any previous attempts – but, after 3 successive 1-0 victories, they found themselves at the summit of their group, involving Iraq, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, and into the quarter-finals – somewhat of a trend that they have yet to break.
In 2006, they were subject to some, rather, unwanted controversy as they narrowly missed out on qualification to the FIFA World Cup in Germany. Having reached the final round of Asian qualification, they lost on away goals to Bahrain (the same team that they lost to in the 2004 AFC Cup quarter-finals).
The controversy came thanks to, what FIFA deemed to be, a refereeing error by the Japanese official, Toshimitsu Yoshida. This resulted in Uzbekistan’s initial 1-0 win being declared null and void, and the game ordered to be replayed. Evidently, Bahrain went through into the inter-continental play-off against Trinidad and Tobago and, although there is no guaranteeing that they would have won that game, Uzbekistan were robbed of what would have been their greatest achievement.
It took the country a long time to recover from this set-back and, although it’s not the only reason, the national team failed to replicate such a success until 2011 – where they went further in the Asian Cup than ever before.
As already detailed, in 2004 they reached the quarter-finals, they did the same in 2007 but 2011 saw them go even better and defy expectations yet another time in their, what was at that point, 19 year international history.
Indeed, having won 2 and drawn 1 in their group against Qatar, Kuwait and China they took on Jordan in the quarter-final and were hoping to advance past this stage for the first time. 2 goals in 3 early second-half minutes from, journey-man, Ulugbek Bakayev meant that despite Jordan pulling a goal back, they set up a clash with Australia in the semi-finals.
They say fortune favours the brave but, then again, sometimes you can be too brave. This would prove to be the case for the White Wolves as, although they took the game to Australia for the outset, they ended up being the wrong side of a 6-0 rout and finished in 4th place.
I mean, the signs were all good, but they weren’t exceptional – the Uzbeks looked like they were settling into their rhythm and were finding consistency in and around the middle-echelons of world football.
A FIFA World Ranking of 75th in 2011, represented a climb of 34 places in 12 months but, perhaps more remarkably, a decline of 30 positions over the last 5 years. So, very much a yo-yo team, you have to wonder, could the next generation of talent elevate the team to the next level?
Well, I’m glad you asked, because it just so happens that we’re now going to take a look at the fortunes of their Under 20 team!
Much like the full senior team, the Under 20’s got off to a distinctly indistinct start, just kind of being there but not mixing it – that is until the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup;
Having not made it out of the group stages in their previous 2 campaigns, they looked to be heading for the same fate when placed in a group with Croatia, Uruguay and New Zealand. They scrapped through, however, in 3rd place with 1 win, 1 draw and 1 loss. From there, they beat Greece 3-1 in the round of 16, before coming up against a France side featuring the likes of Paul Pogba and Co – a gritty display ended in a 4-0 loss but, history had been made nonetheless.
Taking this into account then, it is more than fair enough to say that Uzbekistan have plenty of raw, uncut diamonds within their domestic system and it is just a matter of those in charge nurturing them in order to get them to the potential that they have.
Seemingly, Uzbekistan are incapable of having an impressive showing at a major tournament without then having a major plateau over the next 12-18 months and, this proved to be the case yet again after their U-20 showing with a rather mediocre World Cup qualification campaign bumping the nation back to reality in quite aggressive fashion.
How would they fare then on the Road to Russia?
Well, swimmingly, frankly. Entering in the 2nd round, they topped a tough 5 team group with 7 wins from 8 games; they also scored 20 goals in the process to put an end to their, often banded about, criticism of being defensive minded.
The 3rd and, potentially, final round awaited them and got under way earlier this month and being in a group with Iran, South Korea, China, Syria and Qatar will make sure that if they are to qualify then they would have thoroughly played out of their skins.
Play out of their skins is exactly what they’re doing though, 2 games and 2 wins (admittedly against the easiest opponents) sits them pretty at the top of the table with confidence supreme.
Uzbekistan are the last of the fallen Soviet countries still to really make their mark on world football – now, you see, maybe that’s due to the lack of exposure they’ve had from being part of the AFC, instead of UEFA but that’s not particularly their fault.
Nonetheless, they have a point to prove and if they can keep it up for 6 more games, then they will get the chance that they truly deserve in order to show the world what they are really about.
There are certain countries whereby you feel as though something is missing in society, I’m reminded of Bosnia whenever I say that and just their circumstances after the war and, although it may sound like an exaggeration, it always amazes me of the effect that football can have on a nation – for the people of Uzbekistan, let’s hope that football is their saviour.