Youth focus pays dividends for Uzbeks

Traditional Central Asia powerhouse Uzbekistan has focused strongly on youth development since the country gained independence in 1991. After twice featuring in the FIFA U-20 World Cup at UAE 2003 and Egypt 2009, their efforts have again borne fruit after recently winning their way through to a first-ever FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Under coach Aleksey Evstafeev, Uzbekistan took October's AFC U-16 Championship by storm, finishing top of a section which also featured Jordan, Indonesia and neighbours Tajikistan to reach the last eight. The tournament was played on home soil and Evstafeev’s young charges enjoyed strong support to claim a berth at Mexico 2011 thanks to a 2-1 quarter-final win against a resilient Syria 2-1.

Qualifying for a FIFA competition is a huge success that provides our country with an immense boost.
Alisher Nikimbaev, Uzbek FA official

Inspired by the ground-breaking achievement, the Uzbeks went on to oust Australia by an identical scoreline to set up a showdown with Korea DPR, only for the crowd favourites to lose 2-0. Despite the disappointment, the runners-up finish represented Uzbekistan’s best-ever result at the age group levels.

“Qualifying for a FIFA competition is a huge success that provides our country with an immense boost,” Alisher Nikimbaev, assistant to the President of Uzbek Football Federation (UFF), told FIFA.com. “It is also a testament to our good work in youth development.”

Youthful exuberance
Uzbekistan is a young country and its population mirrors this with an average age of just 21.8, and teenagers under 14 accounting for more than one third of its 28-million inhabitants. Perhaps mindful of such potential footballing resources, the authorities have paid great importance to youth development with numerous academies set up across the country.

“One of our advantages is that we have a lot of football training centres throughout the country where young talents can be discovered and developed,” Nikimbaev continued. “Thus we always have plenty of options in national team selection.”

One of the most notable products of such youth centres over the past decade is international striker Aleksandr Geynrikh, who cut his teeth at the Angren Football School before graduating into the Olympic Reserve School alongside friend, former Juventus midfielder Ilyas Zeytullayev.

Also among the major suppliers of talent for the national teams are the youth academies of local clubs, with nearly half of the current U-17 side hailing from Uzbek league giants Pakhtakor, Mash’al and Bunyodkor. Indeed it was a pair of Pakhtakor youngsters that captured the most attention in the qualification tournament, with forward Timur Khakimov striking five times to claim the Most Valued Player award, while captain Abbosbek Makhstaliev netted a brace to help his side down Australia.

In the previous continental finals two years ago, Uzbekistan, the host country on that occasion as well, lost out to Korea Republic 3-0 in their crucial quarter-final to miss qualification for the world stage at the final hurdle. However Uzbekistan well and truly atoned for that failure this time around, an achievement which Nikimbaev attributes to the new crop of star players in the ranks.

“The FA provided great support and facilities as before so there were no big changes at the organisational level,” he said. “But this time we have unearthed some remarkable talents in this U-17 team and it was they who proved the difference in qualifying.”

Uzbekistan have yet to make any impression during their two appearances at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, failing to progress beyond the group stage on each occasion. But with such gifted players at their disposal, Nikimbaev believes that it is time for them to make history at Mexico 2011. “It may be premature to make predications before the lots are drawn but I think we have a good chance to make it to the second round, as long as our talented players are in their top form,” he concluded.