If you were to ask me few months ago: what is the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan known for? I would have answered: Gold, Copper and National Gas. If you were to ask me the same question today, I would add Football to that list.
Critics in the Asian scene have consistently underrated Uzbekistan in major tournaments and the Uzbeks somehow seem to prove them wrong.
With encouraging performances in this month alone from all levels; U-16 to AFC Champion’s League to International, it will just be a matter of time when we see Uzbekistan up there along with such Asian greats as Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia.
One of the more esteemed clubs of the nation, FC Bunyodkor has quite some story. It only took the club 3 years, since it was formed in 2005, to reach the AFC Champions League, and that too bowing out to Australian side Adelaide United in the Semi-finals. It is quite an achievement, considering 2008 being their first season in the Champions League. Since then, they have managed to get past the group stages in each of the following Champions League season.
Recently, they beat the very team that denied them from moving into the finals in their inaugural season, to set up a Semi-final clash with South Korean side, Ulsan Hyundai. The first leg is to be played on Wednesday. Bunyodkor is only a few difficult steps away from staking a claim as Champions of Asia and consequently, facing the big dogs of various continents in the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup in December.
The senior international squad has had a solid outing as well. They have only strengthened their case at the Asian level with Quarterfinal finishes in 2004 & 2007, and a strong 4th place finish in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
With four more games to go in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, a 1 – 0 win over Qatar last week has given the confidence they need to appear in their first World Cup. As it stands right now, Group B is open for any of the 5 teams to take and Uzbekistan is comfortably placed below South Korea and Iran with a difference of only 3 points between the five.
Lastly, the future of the country looks bright as well. The U-16 team after being runners up in the 2010 AFC Championship, lost to Uruguay in the Quarterfinals of the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. This time around, the young “White Wolves” as they are known ended up winning the 2012 AFC Championships held in Iran having beaten all three regional heavy weights in succession (S. Korea in Quarters, Iran in Semis and Japan in Finals). This victory has given them an automatic berth in next year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
In all seriousness, Uzbeki Football is making amendments to the way the World sees Asian football and will soon be a team to reckon with. Their physical strength and aggressive style of play can only be matched by Australia at the moment. And with technical players like the Uzbeki Maradona, Server Djeparov (who currently plays for Al Shabab in KSA) and Azizbek Haydarov (who plays for Al Shabab in UAE); the midfield looks set for the immediate future. The attack is lacking a solid performer, but with this unknown country comes many unknown but positive possibilities.
So as the advice goes, do think twice about Uzbekistan before counting them out in the future.