Uzbekistan is a relatively new country with only three decades since its independence, however, in this short period, the Central Asian side has generated ripples of giant magnitudes in football, especially at the youth level that gave them recognition and thus the invitations for friendlies by big boys of Asia.
A young country with young stars and a proactive football association has resulted in the formation of a challenging contender that the top teams of Asia are wary of and India will face them once in the U-17 Asian Cup and then at the senior Asian Cup six months later.
Barefoot to Boots: Uzbeki version?
Similar to India who clinched Asiad gold just four years after Independence, Uzbekistan too wasted no time as they achieved the same feat in two years, during a period when the country was barely standing on its feet. As a matter of fact, the country’s sports ministry wasn’t even willing to send the team to Asian Games due to having little to no faith in the football team bringing a medal and rather wanted to send athletes whose medal winning chances were higher.
According to a newspaper published in 1993, one of the Uzbeki football journalists was asked by a parent to help his child find suitable shoes, to which the journalist replied that even the Uzbeki legend Mirjalol Qosimov could not find such shoes in the country. This reminded the journalist about the passion within the thousands of Uzbeki kids who played barefoot despite lacking shoes and proper fields, similar to Pele on the sandy shores of Brazil or passionate kids in the hills of India. This showcased the footballing culture that existed in the country and also revealed the lack of infrastructure, but Uzbekistan has built several new stadiums including the beautiful Milliy Stadium.
Uzbekistan’s run didn’t end with the Asian Gold, in fact, it was the first wave from the White Wolves about what was to come. Almost a decade later, the U-20 team went on to qualify for the FIFA Youth World Cup in 2003, making it the first Uzbeki team to qualify for a FIFA World Cup event. In the tournament, the team managed to score three goals but lost all their games including the final game against Spain where 19-year-old Iniesta scored the winner.
During the same year in club football, Pakhtakor reached the semis of the AFC Chmapions League. Since then the Uzbeki clubs have regularly made appearances in the tournament, reaching as far as semifinals on several occasions.
Success at the youth level
The nation with 3.5 Crore inhabitants has tasted success in each of Asia’s youth categories, which reveals the potential of football in the country. Uzbekistan’s trophy cabinet boasts of the 2012 AFC U-16 Championship, the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship and the very recent addition of the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup.
The first major breakthrough in the under-17 level came during the 2010 AFC U-16 Championship where Uzbekistan galloped through the tournament, securing the maiden FIFA U-17 World Cup birth while remaining unbeaten until the final where they lost to North Korea by 2-0. In the World Cup next year, the White Wolves topped the group and beat Australia by a massive 4-0 margin in the round of 16 before bowing out to the eventual runners-up Uruguay by 2-0 in the quarterfinal.
The following batch completed their senior’s dream as they clinched the 2012 AFC U-16 Asian Cup title, the country’s first Asian youth title. Surprisingly, India was in Uzbekistan’s group and faced them in the first game. India’s line-up had familiar names: Sarthak Golui, Uttam Rai, Sajid Dhot, Isaac Vanmalsawma, Alen Deory, Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Germanpreet Singh. Uttam Rai’s brace was not enough as Uzbekistan edged past India by 3-2.
While India was eliminated from the tournament with 2 points, Uzbekistan beat the Asian Giants South Korea (in the quarterfinals), Iran (3-2 in the semis) and Japan in the finals to lay hands on the maiden title. In the U-17 World Cup the following year, they finished second in the group stage by beating Panama (2-0) and Croatia (2-1) and having a goalless draw against Morocco but unlike on the previous occasion, the team was halted at the round of 16 after a 1-0 defeat to Honduras.
Ever since the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Uzbekistan has not qualified for the tournament and at the Asian level, they once even failed to qualify for the Asian Cup in 2018. The drop in performance at the Asian level cannot take away the image of the team as they have been preparing months in and out for the current U-17 Asian Cup.
Road to the AFC U-17 Asian Cup
The current under-17 team of Uzbekistan started their journey by hosting the 2022 Mirabror Usmanov Memorial Cup where Japan, Iran and Tajikistan had been invited. Uzbekistan started with a 1-1 draw against Iran before winning by big margins against Tajikistan (5-0) and Japan (3-0).
in the last year’s qualifiers for the AFC U-17 Asian Cup, they were placed in Group J with South Korea, Brunei and Sri Lanka (withdrew later). They started off with a 14-0 rampage against Brunei and in the second and final match of the group, they beat South Korea by 3-2 thus securing the place in U-17 Asian Cup as group toppers.
Similar to AIFF, Uzbekistan FA has managed to arrange several friendlies and exposure tours for their youth teams. A month after qualification, Uzbekistan played two friendlies against Russia U-17 where they held them to a 2-2 draw in the first game before losing the second by 5-0. The following month saw Saudi Arabia take on Uzbekistan in two friendlies where the Saudis came out victorious in the first friendly by a 2-1 margin (similar to India’s qualifier match two months earlier). While the second game saw both the sides sharing spoils with a 1-1 draw.
FIFA rule cites that no two teams drawn in the same group in the final tournament shall face each other before the tournament starts. But the draw hadn’t taken place yet in January this year when Uzbekistan toured India. The Uzbeki U-17 team was coming from a cold winter of January in Tashkent to the warm and humid conditions of Goa. It took time for them to acclimatise as they lost the first match by 2-0 before winning the second by 3-0.
In the first match, Uzbekistan started off brightly with good chances but Bibiano’s side eventually found the rhythm and lead by 2-0 at the stroke of halftime. Uzbekistan’s physique which was expected to give them an advantage wasn’t utilised to its fullest as the conditions weren’t friendly for the visitors. India looked more comfortable with the ball in the second half and sailed past the victory line with a clean sheet.
In the second game, coach Jamaluddin Rakhmatullaev made four changes to the lineup. Similar to the first match India started off nervy again as Uzbekistan’s chance in the first minute missed the target by inches. India’s backline looked shaky and failed to man-mark on a couple of occasions, which if not for poor finishing, would have led to Uzbekistan’s early lead, but the hosts had their share of chances as well. However, in the second half, Uzbekistan took an early lead via Usmonjonov’s brilliant left-footed strike. The visitors extended the lead via two defensive errors from India’s backline. With an unassailable lead for Uzbekistan, the match ended 3-0 in favour of the visitors.
In February, Uzbekistan toured Turkey where they took part in the Antalya Youth Cup and won all three games against Morocco (1-0), Czechia (1-0) and Australia (2-1). Later in March, the team flew to the other side of the globe where they faced Uruguay and Argentina twice, losing all games (5-2 and 2-1 vs Uruguay in Montevideo, 8-0 and 2-1 vs Argentina in Buenos Aires).
In April, Uzbekistan invited Yemen U-17 who had also qualified for the final tournament and were undergoing preparations. The hosts beat Yemen in both the friendlies (5-1 and 2-0). In the next month, Uzbekistan played Qatar in a closed-door friendly, the result of which is therefore unknown.
At the end of the month, Uzbekistan U-17 played a friendly against one of the top Uzbekistan Super League club’s U-19 team: FC Bunyodkor U-19, where they narrowly lost by 3-2 in a high-scoring encounter. On 6 June, the team played their final match against Malaysia, winning by a 3-2 margin before departing to Thailand.
Goalkeepers: Diyorbek Tulaboev, Muhammadyusuf Sobirov, Asilbek Numonov
Defenders: Mukhammad-Bobur, Asrorbek Otakhonov, Ozodbek Uktamov, Bekhruz Djumatov, Sherzodbek Abdulboriev, Mamadalikhon Olimov, Dilshod Abdullaev
Midfielders: Aminbek Yokubov, Azizbek Tulkunbekov, Lazizbek Mirzaev, Ikromov Abdulhamid, Mukhammedali Reimov, Ollabergan Karimov, Oybek Urmonjonov
Forwards: Mekhruz Shukurullaev, Amirbek Saidov, Abdulkhamid Turgunboev, Kuvonchbek Abraev, Shodiyor Shodiboev, Nikolaos Akopov
Coach: Jamaluddin Rakhmatullaev
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