Welcome back to our multi-part series that talks about the footballing potential in the intriguing region of Central Asia. In the first part, we talked about two countries that have perhaps the least chance of making it big in the Asian football scene, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, but nonetheless are showing signs of improvement. Now, we will discuss two countries that have a higher chance of becoming powerhouses, have stable football leagues, a lot of football fans but are still a bit away from becoming big boys. These countries are the neighbouring, and very mountainous, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Both countries are quite similar in football terms. The sport is the most popular in both of them, and despite not doing much internationally, their clubs make the headlines every now and then. Both the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks also have a host of special players in their ranks. Despite these pros, football in the two Stans suffers due to various problems, including political interference, financial issues, and terribly low attendances. Keep on reading to get a better insight into the good, bad and ugly of Kyrgyz and Tajik football.
The third highest nation by average elevation in the world, Tajikistan is also the poorest in Central Asia, and among the poorest in the entire continent. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that sports infrastructure in the country isn’t the best. Still, though, Tajik clubs do alright for themselves in Asian club competitions. FK Istiklol of Dushanbe have reached the final of the AFC Cup twice in the past three years, and are coming up as one of the best clubs in Central Asia.
Istiklol have also won the Tajik league six times in the past eight years, in fact, they were formed a mere 11 years ago. Their run of winning four leagues in a row matches that of Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda, who also won four on a trot in the early 2000s. Regar are still the most successful club in Tajikistan, however, Istiklol will definitely overtake them as it seems that the 2018 Tajik league will also be won by them. With 11 games played so far, Istiklol is two points ahead of Khudzhand, but are expected to get over the line in first place. One could argue that the Tajik league is becoming a one-horse race, and that isn’t necessarily good for the game in the nation, however, other clubs have dominated the league for periods of time and eventually faltered, so it wouldn’t make sense to say just yet that the league is dead.
Though things might be on the up for the league and for Istiklol, the national team isn’t doing too well. Along with Afghanistan, it is the only Central Asian country that hasn’t qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. The Tajiks are ranked 119 by FIFA right now and are nearing their best ever ranking of 106. However, the Elo system ranks them at 163, their worst ever rank. Their Asian Cup qualification campaign that included losses against Yemen, the Philippines, and a friendly loss to the Chinese U-21 team has got them to the low rank.
Tajikistan does have some great individual footballers though. Parviz Umarbaev, a Tajik-Russian who has played for Istiklol, Rubin Kazan II, and numerous other Russian clubs is among the top goal scorers for the country despite only having played 17 games. At just 23, he has solidified his status as the best Tajik footballer and has become a starter at Lokomotiv Plovdiv, a club that plays in the Parva League in Bulgaria.
Manuchekhr Dzhalilov, a striker who plays in Indonesia for Sriwijaya FC, is one of the most prolific players in all of Central Asia. Dzhalilov scored 59 goals in 47 games during his time at Istiklol, and like Umarbaev, trained and played at the academy of a Russian Premier League club.
Sadly enough though, political interference from President Emomali and a general state of poverty means that Tajik football has potential, but can’t fulfill it due to economic and other external circumstances. If in the future, these problems get fixed even to a slight extent, Tajik football could be in for a trip to the top.
If there’s a nation that has turned its fate around, it’s Kyrgyzstan. In 2010, there were reports of political interference and corruption inside Kyrgyz football. In 2013, the nation hit rock bottom as they were ranked 201 by FIFA. Five years on from the sub-200 ranking, Kyrgyzstan is heading to their first ever Asian Cup and was ranked 75th by FIFA in the April rankings. Although they’ve slipped to 92 now, Kyrgyz football is climbing mountains at a fast rate and is nearing the peak.
This monumental growth is down to the efforts of Russian managers Sergey Dvoryankov and Aleksandr Krestinin. The pair naturalised players from Africa, Germany, and made sure that Russian-Kyrgyz players would represent Kyrgyzstan. This meant that Kyrgyzstan has only lost 7 games of the 21 they’ve played since 2015. For a team that lost 12 of the previous 21 matches, many by more than three goals, that isn’t bad at all.
The Kyrgyz league is small, has no standout clubs and is considered dysfunctional by a lot of people, due to financial problems and a lack of viewership. Clubs in Kyrgyzstan are backed by some of the richest people in the country but still suffer from money problems. Alay Osh and Dordoi Bishkek are the best clubs in the Kyrgyz Republic, but rarely ever do they make waves in the continental scene. It is expected however, that the rise of the national team will lead to the rise of club football and the Kyrgyz league.
Similar to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan also have their share of talented individual footballers. German-Kyrgyz striker Vitaliy Lux is one example of that, whereas captain Edgar Bernhardt, another German passport holder leads by example. Journeyman Anton Zemlianukhin has played everywhere, from Turkey to Thailand, and from Serbia to Russia. Though he hasn’t found huge success at any club he’s played at, Zemlianukhin is Kyrgyzstan’s all time top scorer.
Kyrgyz football is also plagued by problems mainly related to finances and infrastructure. The mountainous topography of the country also makes spreading football a hard task. However, we hope that their surge up the FIFA rankings stabilises and that Kyrgyz football keeps getting stronger.
That will be it for the second and penultimate part of our series. In the next part, we will focus solely on Uzbekistan, due to the multitude of interesting topics to discuss in the country.
*this is the second part of our series that talks about the potential of Central Asian football.