Welcome back to our third and final piece in this series. After talking about how Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are full of footballing potential, we’ll be talking about the only remaining Central Asian country, Uzbekistan in this piece. The reason the Uzbeks are getting an entire article to themselves is simply because of the disparity in quality and potential between them and the rest of Central Asia. The Uzbeks are opening up, are fairly wealthy, have a proper league system, and have some great players in their ranks. All this makes them perfect candidates to be the next great Asian football country, and I’ll bet you that they’ll qualify for the 2022 World Cup, becoming the first Central Asian country to do so. Let’s go deeper into Uzbek football and get to know why exactly I’m so optimistic about the nation’s chances.
Starting off with the national team. The Uzbeks have been cruelly denied spots at the past two World Cups by the Gods of football. For the 2014 World Cup, they were a step away from reaching the intercontinental play-offs but lost 9-8 on penalties to Jordan. For the 2018 one, they were on par with Syria on points and would have played against Australia for a berth in the same playoff, but got denied by goal difference.
Uzbekistan are regulars at the Asian Cup, however they’ve only started making their mark at the tournament after the turn of the decade. To be fair, Uzbek football itself has been reborn as a whole after beginning of the 2010’s, with improvements in every aspect. Back to the Asian Cup, Uzbekistan were in the semi-finals in 2011, and in the quarters in 2015. The fourth place finish in 2011 is their best performance in the cup to date, but better things are expected in 2019.
In the run-up to the 2018 World Cup, Uzbekistan’s U23 team played against the World Cup squads of Iran and Uruguay, and delivered an impressive performance. The Uzbeks, filled with only homegrown U23s, lost by just a goal to a formidable Iran, and despite losing 3-0, gave Uruguay a decent fight.
The senior Uzbek team too, despite being based on old players such as Server Djeparov and Azizbek Haydarov, has a high amount of young players that will do a fine job of filling the boots of the aforementioned legends. Russia based Eldor Shomurodov and Dostonbek Khamdamov are arguably the nation’s brightest talents. Eldor is a fine young striker whereas Dostonbek was the recipient of the Best Young Footballer in Asia award three years ago.
The team’s FIFA ranking has slipped to 95 from 48 in around two years, but their Elo ranking is still near their all-time best of 43. Though it seems that the national team’s form has taken somewhat of a dip, this is far from the case.
With a well-blended mix of experience and youth, flair and composure, strength and speed, Uzbekistan’s national team is not one to be taken lightly, and could well upset the odds at the upcoming Asian Cup, infact, I’ll be surprised if they don’t.
Leagues and Clubs
Though Nasaf Qarshi are the only Uzbek club to have won an AFC club competition, Uzbek clubs are far from weak. Neftchi Ferghana, Pakhtakor Tashkent and Bunyodkor with their lovely new stadium are all teams regularly competing for the Uzbek Super League and will soon be competing for the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup. In the past few years, the quality of foreign footballers coming to the league has increased, and a sponsorship with Pepsi has done it a world of good.
Uzbekistan has undeniably opened up economically after the death of President Islam Karimov, and this has resulted in the growth of Uzbek football, off the pitch. Infrastructure has improved, new stadiums are being made, clubs are getting richer, foreign entities are getting interested in the league, and so on and so forth.
If Uzbek clubs start performing to ther potential in Asian competitions, and the quality of the league stays consistent, we may see the league up there in terms of popularity with the East Asian and Middle Eastern leagues.
Another thing that goes in the favour of the Uzbek league is how evenly matched the top clubs are. Unlike Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the top three or four clubs are fairly even, and even the mid-table clubs, despite being far from close to the top ones, are very close together. In 2017, just five points separated teams 5-10 in the table, and so far in 2018, we’re not that close, but are close nonetheless.
All of this tells us that the Uzbek league is on a steady course to fame and popularity, and with fame and popularity comes an increase in quality, just ask the Chinese. If all stays well in Uzbekistan, outside of football, mark my words, one of the country’s clubs will win the AFC Champions League by 2021.
Sure, I’ll accept that the Uzbek league isn’t cut throat close, or is very high quality, and I’ll accept that the clubs in Uzbekistan regularly underperform in Asia, however something I won’t accept is people saying that Uzbek football overall is underperforming and is stagnating. The country was repressive, and separated from the rest of the world until the end of 2016. In just under two years, it has managed to almost qualify for a World Cup, establish its league as one of the best in the continent, and has been surpassing expectations, like it so often does.
The national team is another success story, that keeps being denied by fate. However, fate and luck can only deny one for so long, a point will come where the Uzbekistanis are too good to lose out on penalties and goal difference, hopefully that point comes sooner rather than later. Till then, all we can do is observe and admire Uzbek football flower into the next big thing in Asian football.