Central Asia has never been at the heart of the continent’s football scene.
That may be about to change however as Uzbekistan will qualify for a first-ever World Cup if they defeat South Korea in Seoul on Tuesday.
If it happens, it would be quite the party with the region celebrating a first ever appearance on the global stage. Along with neighbours Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhstan plays in UEFA), Uzbekistan only became independent in the early nineties after decades of being inside the USSR, a small part of a much larger football fabric.
The team roared out of the Soviet bloc to win the 1994 Asian Games, beating good opposition along the way, but for the rest of the century, that was it. For much of this, Uzbekistan have threatened to join the ranks of the continent’s elite on numerous occasions but never quite taking the opportunity when it arose.
"It took time for us to find our way in the Asian Football Confederation and Asian football in general after the break-up of the Soviet Union but we have developed over the years and we have a strong national football team," the head of the Uzbek Football Federation (UFF) Mirabror Usmanov told Al Jazeera.
Two-time Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov has vision, creativity and plenty of technique that he wants to show on the biggest stage and despite being 30, still wants to play in Europe. Odil Ahmedov is a 25-year-old already linked to teams like Arsenal and Ignatiy Nesterov is one of the best goalkeepers in Asia.
For some, in the team it is their last chance but at the moment, nobody is looking past Tuesday’s game in Seoul and not just because Uzbekistan have lost all four of their games to date in South Korea.
Nobody is taking anything for granted. In this double-landlocked country, fans are twice-shy after events of 2006.
We have come close to qualifying in the past and the whole country is really hoping that this time we can make the final step. There is still some work to do and we have two tough games remaining but we are all pulling in the same direction and the players can't wait. It would be a very proud day to see Uzbekistan at the World Cup and playing against the best teams in the world
Eight years ago, the White Wolves finished third in their group in the final round of qualification and were thrown into the play-offs. All they had to do was beat Bahrain over two legs then only Trinidad and Tobago stood in the way of the German World Cup.
It started well in Tashkent. The hosts were a goal ahead against Bahrain and were then awarded a penalty. Djeparov converted, only for referee Toshimitsu Yoshida to whistle for encroachment.
Incredibly, and for Uzbekistan, devastatingly, instead of ordering a retake, the Japanese official gave Bahrain a free-kick. In the end, the game finished 1-0. "If that penalty had counted, we were so dominant that I think we would have won three or four nil," then coach Bob Houghton told this writer in 2012.
"I remember leaving the pitch at half-time and asking the fourth official and saying to him: "What the hell is that?" He replied that it was a new rule."
It wasn’t of course and the UFF were soon on the phone to FIFA to demand a 3-0 forfeit. Instead, the world governing body ordered a replay, Bahrain got a 1-1 draw and went through on away goals after the second leg in Manama ended goalless.
The team made the latter stages of the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups but struggled in qualification for 2010. The road to Brazil has already been something of a roller-coaster. The final round of qualification started badly. Iran was always going to be a rival for one of the two automatic spots in the five-team group and a home tie in Tashkent was a great opportunity to get off to a good start.
Despite missing five players suspended by FIFA, charged with deliberately collecting yellow cards in the penultimate game of the previous round in order to start the final stage with a clean slate, Uzbekistan dominated, had a good goal disallowed and were then caught by a hammer-blow counter-attack in the 94th minute. Coach Vadim Abramov was fired and Miraljal Kasimov came back for a second spell in charge.
It didn’t seem to make much difference at first, The next game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw in Lebanon. A defeat at home to South Korea in September 2012 could virtually have ended the team’s chances but an equaliser from Sanzhar Tursunov earned a 2-2 draw and when the same player scored the only goal of the game in Qatar, they were up and running. A vital 1-0 win in Tehran and a victory by the same scoreline at home to Lebanon changed the outlook completely.
The class of 2013 has a chance to change all that and much more besides. A win in Korea will be enough but that is not the last chance. A draw in Seoul and three points at home to Qatar a week later will also do the job.
Usmanov, like millions of his countrymen, has his fingers crossed.
"We have come close to qualifying in the past and the whole country is really hoping that this time we can make the final step. There is still some work to do and we have two tough games remaining but we are all pulling in the same direction and the players can't wait. It would be a very proud day to see Uzbekistan at the World Cup and playing against the best teams in the world."
John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden
Source: Al Jazeera