Most football enthusiasts will have more than a passing acquaintance with the likes of Barcelona, Boca Juniors, Pohang Steelers and El Ahly. But have you ever heard of Istiqlol Dushanbe? Football fans should sit up and take notice of the men from the Tajik capital, as Istiqlol set a record last week that is the envy of the most dominant clubs in the world.
The team from the west of the Republic of Tajikistan have just finished their domestic season with 26 wins, six draws and no defeats to their name, which represents the longest current unbeaten run in world football. Unsurprisingly, Istiqlol strolled off with the Tajik League title, this a mere three years after their foundation in 2007 and two years after they first gained promotion to the top flight. They gave notice of their potential by winning the cup in 2009, and have now claimed a second major trophy.
Recipe for success
At first glance, this fast track to success would appear to be beyond rational explanation, but analysis of the current squad is revealing: more than half of the Tajikistan national team are on the books at Istiqlol.
In 1994, just three years after independence from the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan became a full member of FIFA, and reached 114th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in July 1997, their highest position to date. However, they are still a long way from realising the dream of appearing at the FIFA World Cup™ finals, for although they competed for a place at the 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 editions, they made little impression in qualifying.
The greatest successes achieved so far by The Persian Lion include a 4-0 victory over Uzbekistan in qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup in 1996, and a 5-0 thrashing of Turkmenistan in the eliminators for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France.
Tajikistan arrived once and for all on the international stage in the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition designed specifically for younger, developing Asian football nations. The Tajiks won the inaugural tournament in 2006, and made the final two years later, although they had to be content with third spot at the third edition of the Challenge Cup in February 2010.
Victory to round off the year
The signs for the future are positive, as the Tajikistan juniors demonstrated at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007. Qualifying for the tournament was an achievement in itself, but once in Korea, the youngsters really hit the headlines, beating the USA en route to a place in the last sixteen, and then matching Peru for 120 minutes before finally going out on penalties.
No fewer than seven players from that U-17 team were on senior duty in the final international fixture of 2010, against Afghanistan, which is not so surprising when you consider that Tajikistan head coach Pulod Kodirov was also in charge of the U-17 team for the global showdown in Korea.
Spearheaded by captain Yusuf Rabiev, The Persian Lion rounded off the year with a 1-0 victory over the Afghans, who occupy 195th spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. With a young and patently promising squad, and given the passion and enthusiasm for football in the nation of more than seven million, there seems little reason why Tajik football should not continue on an upward path. That process would undoubtedly receive a major boost if Tajikistan managed to qualify for an AFC Asian Cup or even the FIFA World Cup.
Record for all time?
For the time being, the nation’s footballing family will continue to marvel at the record set by Istiqlol Dushanbe, even if their going a whole season undefeated is not a first in the domestic league. The feat was achieved nine years ago by Regar-TadAZ Tursunzade, the country’s most successful club and champions on seven occasions between 2001 and 2008. Regar-TadAZ trailed in 13 points behind all-conquering Istiqlol in the nine-team top flight this term.
Incidentally, Manchester United are the only side still unbeaten this season in all of west Europe’s major leagues. If the Red Devils are to wrest the record for the longest unbeaten run from the Tajikistan champions, they would have to go the next 17 league games without losing – and that would be well into next spring.