Tajikistan surprised even their own supporters by booking their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. The little-known Central Asian side went into this September's AFC U17 Championship as tournament's debutants and when they were pitted against the formidable trio of Iran, Iraq and Yemen, their chances of springing a surprise looked slim. Coach Pulod Kodirov sounded equally cautious heading into the tournament, admitting the most his side could hope for was a place in last eight. However, his charges shocked everyone, taking the tournament by storm to claim third place in addition to a coveted place at Korea 2007.
The continent's perennial underdogs, Tajikistan had barely any experience of top-level continental competition in Asia before the AFC U-17 Championship. Despite this, they have never been short on footballing talent, with a cluster of Tajik players currently plying their trades in Austria, Germany and Russia. Inconsistency has generally proved their downfall and, as such, the sustained success of their youth team came as a timely boost to football development across this country.
Tajikistan opened their AFC U-17 Championship campaign with a narrow 1-0 victory over Pakistan in the preliminary round and still had to fight tooth and nail to overcome India 3-2 to book their first-ever place in the finals proper.
Once there, Kodirov's attacking-minded outfit looked unstoppable in the group stage, sweeping past Iraq (1-0), Iran (2-1) and Yemen (4-3) to swagger confidently into the quarter-finals. In the all-important last-eight clash against Korea Republic, the central Asians had to thank their goalkeeper Mirali Murodov for keeping the FIFA U-17 World Cup hosts at bay before Farkhod Vasiev scored the only goal of the match to book Tajikistan's place at Korea 2007. Perhaps stunned by their own success, Kodirov's side were then beaten 3-0 by Korea DPR in the semi-final, but they recovered their composure to edge Syria in the third place play-off, rounding off an unforgettable campaign in perfect fashion.
Experienced Pulod Kodirov has made history by becoming the first coach to guide Tajikistan to a FIFA tournament. He laid the foundation for his success by selecting no fewer than 11 players from Tajik top-flight club Orieno and coaching know-how can be seen not only in tactics, but also in getting the best of players. Evidence of this was provided by his lifting of the pre-tournament pressure last September when he insisted that Tajikistan's target was nothing more than a place in the quarter-finals. Then, with the team growing confidently into the competition and pulling off one big surprise after another, he quickly changed his tone to encourage his players to yet greater heights, vowing that they hadn't come merely to make up numbers, but to win the cup.
Affectionately nicknamed 'beanpole', 16-year-old Davrondzhon Tukhtasunov is Tajikistan's top marksman. He burst into the continental arena at this year's AFC U-17 Championship, scoring four times to help his team qualify for FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. He completed a brace against Iran to fire Tajikistan into the last eight and, in the last group match against Yemen, he struck twice to ensure that his side edged a seven-goal thriller. The Tajik teenager's idol is Thierry Henry and with his lightning speed, deft skills and sharp nose for goals, Tukhtasunov is hoping prove Tajikistan's answer to Arsenal's fantastic Frenchman.
"It is a dream come true that we finishing third in our first-ever AFC U17 Championship. The team made the nation proud and the success also proves that Tajikistan's football is one the way up." (Pulod Kodirov, coach)