Until recently, Tajikistan's history in international football could have been summarised on the back of a proverbial postage stamp. After all, since contesting their first match as an independent nation against Uzbekistan on 17 June 1992, not a great deal has happened.

Even now, in truth - and despite their recent victory at the AFC Challenge Cup and resultant 16-place jump in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking - it is likely that, to the majority of casual observers, this former Soviet Republic will continue to throw up a great deal more questions than answers.

'Who', for example - and 'where'? In the latter case, the answer is that the Republic of Tajikistan, formerly known as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, is a landlocked country of 7.3 million people in Central Asia, bordered by Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The question of who, particularly in a football context, has generally proved more problematic, with Tajikistan, even in their own continent, remaining relatively little-known due to their lack of competitive action. Fortunately, however, that spectacular triumph at the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup seems all but certain to change that.

A chequered history
Prior to their victory in Bangladesh, Tajikistan's record since becoming affiliated to FIFA in 1994 has hinted at progress of the slow, steady and unspectacular variety. However, they have not been without the odd noteworthy triumph, even at the start, with a 4-0 win over Uzbekistan in a 1996 AFC Asian Cup qualifier and a 5-0 triumph over Turkmenistan in a preliminary for the 1998 World Cup France™ giving notice of their potential.

France 1998 was, in fact, the first FIFA World Cup for which they attempted to qualify and, despite recording a creditable enough performance with four victories in their preliminary group stage, they were ultimately ousted by neighbouring giants, China. Undeterred, they returned three years later in a three-team qualifying section for Korea/Japan 2002 to record their record scoreline in an incredible 16-0 win over Guam, and then gave Iran a fright before eventually succumbing to an Ali Daei-inspired 2-0 defeat that left their fragile hopes well and truly shattered.

More recently, Tajikistan only narrowly missed out on making it to the 2004 AFC Asian Cup in China PR and were edged out by Thailand, whom they'd earlier beaten, by just a solitary point. Again, consistency proved the major stumbling block to progress, with a disappointing draw against tiny Hong Kong costing them dearly.

Nevertheless, this fledgling nation continued to show its potential and, after comfortably disposing of Bangladesh 4-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round of qualifiers for Germany 2006, they further boosted their burgeoning credentials by holding AFC Asian Cup semi-finalists Bahrain to a goalless draw on 31 March 2004.

Although Bahrain would enjoy the last laugh, progressing from the preliminary section with twice the number of points Tajikistan could muster, encouragement had been drawn from the manner in which the Tajiks' disciplined, European-style team were steadily finding their feet among their more established and illustrious Asian counterparts. 

Land of hope and glory
For a country passionate and enthusiastic about its football, the past year has offered huge and justifiable encouragement. Indeed, though it's the national team which has more recently been at the forefront of establishing Tajikistan as an emerging nation to watch out for, Regar-TadAZ - the dominant force in the country's 10-team domestic league - were responsible for blazing this particular trail. 

Only last year, after all, they celebrated an unlikely triumph in the AFC President's Cup in Nepal, a win clinched with a polished and comprehensive 3-0 final victory over Kyrgyzstan's Dordoi, and it was no accident that Regar-TadAZ provided half-a-dozen of the players who earlier this month in Bangladesh became overnight national heroes.

Admittedly, the inaugural 16-team AFC Challenge Cup might only have been contested by the continent's 'emerging' nations - effectively, Asia's third tier behind its 'developing' and 'developed' sides - but, even still, the likes of Palestine, Sri Lanka and the hosts themselves could all have been considered more likely victors.

As it was, with a functional team built on the solid foundation of a tight, compact defence, Tajikistan coasted through the tournament, topping Group D ahead of Kyrgystan and installing themselves as favourites as early as the quarter-finals with an emphatic 6-1 thrashing of the home country.

As this scoreline suggests, they carry a considerable threat going forward, particularly through the likes of Odil Irgashev, whose pace allied to his skill and dead ball expertise, made the Regar-TadAZ winger a constant threat on the right flank. In midfielder Ibraguim Rabimov, Tajikistan also had the man voted the tournament's the Most Valuable Player and, up front, the goals of Yusuf Rabiev played a large part in firing them to the final.

Certainly, it was a brace from Rabiev that put paid to neighbours Kyrgyzstan in the semi-final at the Bangabandhu National Stadium on 13 April 2006, with Tajikistan's veteran coach Sharif Nazarov claiming afterwards that "everything went according to plan."  Nazarov, a popular and widely respected figure in his homeland, followed that up by warning Sri Lanka that he 'had plans for them' in the final, and the 60-year-old proved true to his word. 

The only way is up
So superior were Nazarov's side, in fact, that the tournament's grand finale proved something of an anti-climax, with Sri Lanka losing 4-0 in a one-sided final where the first goal was scored inside 50 seconds.

Nothing, however, should detract from the achievements of the victorious Tajiks, and their celebrations inside the Bangabandhu National Stadium were justifiably exuberant, with Nazarov lifted on to their shoulders and tossed in the air at full-time.

"I may look old, but I feel the youth is still inside," the emotional coach enthused afterwards. "I want to work as long as I am alive."

And no wonder. The next couple of decades promise to be hugely exciting for Tajikstan, and its football team in particular, and the rise in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking that resulted from their AFC Challenge Cup victory leaves them able to target respected international outfits such as Georgia, Bolivia and Cyprus, all of whom are loitering around the 100-mark. Tajikistan may only have reached 125 in the Ranking, but success appears to have whetted the nation's collective appetite and Nazarov, for one, believes the only way is up.

As he said in Bangladesh: "We have also proved that we are able to play at a higher level. This victory is going to develop the game in our country."