Tashkent: Seemingly, Uzbekistan are Asia's perennial underachievers. Since being affiliated to FIFA back in 1994, the central Asian nation have taken part in the continent's qualifying competition for the past five FIFA World Cup tournaments. They may have reached the final qualifying round each time but their bid for a maiden appearance ultimately fell short at the final hurdle.
Now though, the Uzbeks are keen to push aside that tag, as they are again faring well at the same stage. Samvel Babayan's side are sitting among the top three in Asian zone Group A with three victories from five outings, results which have seen their World Cup hopes rekindled. With Asian zone qualifying already past the halfway mark, Uzbekistan are hoping previous disappointments will not be repeated this time around, as captain Odil Ahmedov believes.
"We can go to the World Cup in Russia in 2018," the 29-year-old Shanghai SIPG midfielder told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "We will do our best to realise our dreams of a first-ever World Cup qualification. We have played against each rival in the first-half campaign. Now, we will enter the return legs and we will step up a gear and try to win."
A pair of nemeses
Uzbekistan will open the second half of their qualifying campaign with an away match against Syria in Malaysia on 23 March before entertaining Qatar five days later. That is followed by another away game against current frontrunners Iran in June. They will wrap up their schedule with two home matches against China PR in August and Korea Republic in September.
It is the second meetings with Iran and Korea Republic, the section's top two teams, that Ahmedov relishes most. Indeed, these are the two rivals who have inflicted painful defeats on the Uzbeks on more than one occasion. Uzbekistan came closest to qualifying for Brazil 2014 but defeats to the Iranians and Koreans cost them a maiden World Cup appearance. That campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion for the former Soviet Republic, as they needed just a point from their clash against Korea Republic to progress. However, the Taeguk Warriors advanced with a solitary-goal triumph.
The same ghosts continue to haunt them in the ongoing qualifiers. The Uzbeks began brightly with two opening victories but their hopeful campaign was brought to a halt with a 1-0 home defeat to Iran. Although they bounced back by winning 2-0 in China PR, a 2-1 loss in Korea Republic cost them top spot in Group A.
"Iran and South Korea are among the strongest in Asia," said Ahmedov. "But we did have chances of winning against them [in the first group matches], although we failed. The past lessons should be learned. We will play with confidence and strive to win. The re-meetings with them will be decisive for us. Should we beat them, we will be very hopeful of going to Russia."
Inspired by legends
A product of Uzbek giants Pakhtakor's youth academy, Ahmedov joined the first team at the age of 18 and went on to win two domestic league titles with the Tashkent side. He spent five seasons with Pakhtakor during which he made over a century of appearances and scored sixteen times. His emergence did not go unnoticed by his national team, as he received his first call-up in 2007.
Four years later, he left for pastures new, joining Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala. It was with the Orly that he moved his career to a new level, rising from a promising youngster to an established star. In fact, his performances with Anzhi were such that he earned the club's Player of the Year award in his debut season, ahead of high-profile team-mates Samuel Eto'o and Roberto Carlos. Looking back, Ahmedov was quick to acknowledge his gratitude to the two footballing legends.
"During those years, I played and trained together with Eto'o and Carlos," he recalled. "They are both superb players. They are role models for me. Inspired by them, I have become more professional and I have learned to be strict with myself both on and off the field.
"I gained a lot of experiences and football knowledge during the years in the Russian league. They have attracted top-quality stars from across the world to play in their league, so the competition levels are high. Aside from honing my skills, I have become physically strong."
With the memories of his time in Russia still fresh in his mind, it is natural that Ahmedov is looking to seal a return to his former adopted country by qualifying for next year’s World Cup. “I want so much to go to the World Cup, so I can go back to Russia,” he said. “But this time, I will represent my country Uzbekistan in the World Cup. It would be amazing.”
Sources: FIFA.com, Lagardère Sports