Ask a knowledgeable football expert about the powerhouses of Asian football and the answers would be familiar: Australia, South Korea, Iran and Japan. Uzbekistan may not be on that list, but its history and potential is just as compelling as any of the other Asian nations.

Its’ domestic league has been fiercely contested by the country’s capital clubs, with Pakhtakor Tashkent and Bunyodkor sharing the title from 2002 to 2015. However, last season the dominance of these two clubs was shattered by Lokomotiv Tashkent. The Railroaders won their first league title, finally overcoming the heartbreak of three successive runners-up finishes. Uzbekistan’s clubs have also featured in the continent’s showpiece club competition, the Asian Champions League.

Lokomotiv impressively went on a run to the quarter-finals in their tournament debut last season, which included eliminating Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal in the last-16. In addition, Bunyodkor memorably reached the semi-finals in 2012, when they knocked out two South Korean teams, and progressed to the last-16 in 2013 and 2014. While Uzbekistan’s domestic football scene is going strong, its their national team that’s made great strides.

Since their first fixture as a sovereign nation in June 1992 against Tajikistan, the White Wolves have participated in every Asian Cup. Although their first two tournaments, in 1996 and 2000, ended at the group stage, they’ve reached the knockout stages at each edition since. The 2011 tournament in Qatar was their high watermark, where they finished fourth, and later reached the last eight in 2015. Their qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup to be held in the United Arab Emirates has since been sealed.

Despite their strong performances in the Asian Cup, the Uzbeks have never reached a World Cup. The story behind those near-misses is one of bad luck, off-field controversy and drama.

 

 Penalty heartbreak of a different kind 

 

The 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign had gone as expected for Uzbekistan. They finished third ahead of bottom placed Kuwait in their group, while Saudi Arabia and South Korea sealed their World Cup spots by clinching the top two spots. The White Wolves’ prize for third place was a two-legged playoff against Bahrain to determine who would be the Asian Football Confederation’s representative to face CONCACAF’s Trinidad and Tobago. The winner of the AFC-CONCACAF playoff would head to the World Cup in Germany.

The first leg was played in Tashkent on 3 September 2005. Things started well for Uzbekistan when they took the lead through captain Mirjalol Kasimov – known as the ‘Beckham of Central Asia’ – on qw minutes. On 39 minutes things took a controversial turn when Bahrain conceded a penalty. Twenty-Two-year-old Server Djeparov, the future two-time Asian Footballer of the Year, scored the penalty but it was disallowed by Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida for encroachment. Rather than ordering Uzbekistan to retake the penalty, Yoshida awarded Bahrain a free-kick. The White Wolves couldn’t build on their lead and the first leg finished 1-0.

Uzbekistan’s football authorities were unsurprisingly furious at what happened. The Uzbekistan Football Federation (UFF) made a complaint to FIFA, arguing Yoshida’s decision could be crucial should Bahrain win the second leg by two goals. The UFF wanted the first leg result forfeited with Uzbekistan awarded a 3-0 victory.

FIFA rejected their request and then did something unexpected. They declared Uzbekistan’s 1-0 victory invalid, ordering the first leg to be replayed in October, as well as the second leg in Bahrain that was due to be played on 7 September. The UFF felt wronged and Alisher Nikimbaev, the head of international relations, summed up Uzbekistan’s feelings at the ruling: “The referee stole our second goal and now FIFA is stealing our first goal.”

When the first leg was replayed in Tashkent on 8 October, Uzbekistan were shocked by Bahrain scoring the opener through Talal Yousef. Seeing the fervent crowd of 55,000 fall eerily quiet as Yousef’s low shot went through the legs of the defender, which subsequently wrong-footed the goalkeeper, was stark with the realisation Bahrain had the crucial away goal. Though Uzbekistan equalised a few minutes later through striker Maksim Shatskikh, the first leg would end 1-1.

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The second leg was played in Bahrain’s capital Manama four days later with the Uzbeks desperately trying to score the goal that would put them through. However, the White Wolves couldn’t break through a stubborn Bahraini defence and the second leg finished 0-0 with Bahrain advancing on away goals to the AFC-CONCACAF playoff.

Elimination was a bitter pill to swallow for Uzbekistan, as it led to manager Bobby Houghton losing his job, but more so when Bahrain lost to Trinidad and Tobago the following month. Alas, while the West Indians went to Germany to forge their own history at the World Cup, the UFF could only ponder on what might have been if Toshimitsu Yoshida didn’t make that fateful decision. It was penalty heartbreak but of the cruellest kind where luck had truly deserted them. It would get worse.

 

 The anguish of Tashkent 

 

Uzbekistan failed miserably in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers by finishing bottom in their group during the final round of group stages. But after their excellent showing in the 2011 Asian Cup, hopes were high for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

With one game left to play the Uzbeks were in a good position. In Group A, South Korea and Uzbekistan both had 14 points but the Koreans were top due to a superior goal difference. Iran were in third but just a point behind, as well as occupying the playoff position, which meant facing the third placed team in Group B in a playoff.

Uzbekistan had good reason to be confident, as their final fixture was at home to Qatar, who occupied fourth place and second from bottom of the group ahead of Lebanon. More importantly, the Iranians’ final game – played a few hours before Uzbekistan’s – was away to South Korea in Ulsan. Luck once again deserted them, as Iran shocked the South Koreans to win 1-0 and qualify for the World Cup as group winners.

The White Wolves had to score six goals against Qatar to clinch the second automatic qualification spot ahead of the South Koreans. Though Qatar took the lead, the Uzbeks ran riot in the final third of the game, scoring five goals. But they couldn’t find that all-important sixth goal as the game ended 5-1. South Korea clinched second place; for Uzbekistan it meant a playoff against Jordan to determine who would face Uruguay to decide the final World Cup spot.

The first leg in Amman on 6 September 2013 finished 1-1 with Uzbekistan grabbing the away goal. The second leg was played four days later in Tashkent, playing host to 25,000 expectant Uzbeks at Pakhtakor Markaziy stadium, confident they would go through to the intercontinental playoff and be one step away from realising their World Cup dream.

Things looked that way at the start of the second leg. Five minutes in and Anzur Ismailov tucked in the rebound after keeper Amer Shafi parried Server Djeparov’s free-kick. The crowd expected their team to kill off the tie. The Uzbeks were rarely troubled whenever Jordan tried to attack.

When they had a throw-in deep in Uzbekistan’s half in the 43rd minute, their attempt at a one-two was cut out and quickly cleared. However, the ball looped to Jordanian midfielder Saeed Murjan and, with his right foot, he trapped the ball and shot on the half volley. The ball swerved away from the keeper Zukhurov and found the bottom corner of the net. The ongoing whistles from the crowd whenever Jordan had possession descended into stunned silence. Murjan’s face was one of pure unrestrained joy, and his team-mates quickly mobbed him, knowing they’d scored just before half-time and stopped their opponent’s momentum.

Throughout the second half, the White Wolves tried to score the winner but the Jordanian defence held firm and the game went into extra-time. Ten minutes into the first half of the 30, the floodlights went out, which caused a delay of 18 minutes, forcing both teams off the field. It was disastrous for the Uzbeks, stopping what momentum they had and made the restless Tashkent crowd jeer in frustration. When the teams went back on the field, neither side could find a way through.

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And so it came to penalties. The Jordanians started well, their centre-back Anas Bani Yaseen calmly converting his penalty. While Yaseen was composed in his penalty, Uzbekistan’s missed theirs when Odil Ahmedov’s spot-kick hit the post. Six successful penalties later and Jordan were 4-3 up. Their fifth penalty taker, Ahmad Hayal, was given the chance to win the game. But while Zukhurov dived the wrong way to his left, Hayal blazed his shot wide to send the crowd into a frenzy. Uzbek centre-back Islom Tukhtakhodjaev scored his spot-kick to bring the shootout to sudden death.

When Jordan’s left back Mohammad Al-Dmeiri tucked away his penalty to make it 8-7, up stepped Anzur Ismailov. If you watch the footage you’ll see the defender walk slowly to the penalty spot with his eyes transfixed on the goal, knowing all of his fellow countrymen’s eyes are on him. He receives the ball from the Australian referee Ben Williams and puts it on the spot. As he walks a few steps back, the ref blows his whistle.

You can see Ismailov’s run up is hesitant and it shows in his penalty. It’s hit down the middle and at a perfect height for Shafi to smother it. The Jordanian keeper is bewildered upon realising he’s won the game for his country, while his team-mates rush to embrace him. Ismailov, on the other hand, looks haunted, with his hands crossed behind his head, looking down at the ground wanting it to swallow him whole.

Just as in 2005, it would be a penalty that derailed Uzbekistan’s hopes of reaching the intercontinental playoff in 2013. Jordan would face the same fate as Uzbekistan’s conquerors Bahrain and were crushed by Uruguay. But that was of little comfort to Uzbekistan as yet again luck had cruelly deserted them.

 

 Rekindled Hope 

 

Losing a World Cup playoff in that way would be agonising for any team, but to lose in such difficult circumstances twice in eight years could be traumatic for anyone to overcome. However, the White Wolves’ current qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup gives them hope.

In the final group stage, Uzbekistan are third in Group A with nine points and occupy the playoff position. South Korea are second with 10 points and Iran are top with 11 – both holding the automatic qualification spots. The White Wolves’ next two fixtures are away to fourth-placed Syria before hosting Qatar in Tashkent five days later. If they can obtain at least four points from six then third place would be all but assured.

From past experience, the Uzbeks would prefer the top two automatic spots, which is why their final qualifying game at home to South Korea in September could be pivotal. Finishing third is something the team wants to avoid. Facing a playoff against the third placed team in a highly competitive Group B, which has the likes of Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and a rapidly improving United Arab Emirates, is a daunting prospect.

Uzbekistan’s squad still has remnants of those that played in the 2005 and 2013 World Cup playoff games – Djeparov, Ahmedov, Tukhtakhodjaev and the unfortunate Anzur Ismailov. Along with the experienced striker Alexander Geynrikh, they are a team on the up. Managed by Samvel Babayan since June 2015, the White Wolves will be hoping for better luck in qualifying for the World Cup.

Doing so would extinguish past heartache and put Uzbekistan on the map of world football 

By Yousef Teclab    @yousef738