Uzbek pathfinders eye new frontiers
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Uzbekistan are intent on breaking new ground on their FIFA U-17 World Cup debut, bouncing back from a heavy defeat against New Zealand to beat USA and give themselves a fighting chance of reaching the Round of 16. To make it to the next stage they will need to take something from Saturday’s final group game against Czech Republic, but judging by the resilience the Central Asians have shown in the Mexican heat so far, they look well capable of venturing on.

Runners-up at the 2010 AFC U-16 Championship, a tournament they hosted, the Uzbeks are doing Asia proud in Mexico. In overcoming the Americans, a feat the players themselves have been describing as historic, the tournament debutants have proved they belong on the global stage and that their qualifying performance on home soil was no fluke.

“We are thrilled with this historic victory, our first in this competition,” Aleksey Evstafeev, the man who has plotted their course from Tashkent to Torreon, told FIFA.com. “We are giving everything we have to do justice to Uzbek football and bring a smile to our fans’ faces. We weren’t happy with our performance in the first game or the result, but we’ve shown that we have tremendous potential and that we are capable of big things. We had to pick ourselves up before we could take on a team of the calibre of United States, and the boys went out there and delivered a very assured performance.”

Coupled with Czech Republic’s narrow defeat of New Zealand, Wednesday’s welcome win over the States means all four teams in Group D are tied on three points, with Evstafeev’s charges lying third on goal difference. Another victory in Saturday’s showdown with the Czechs will definitely take them through to the next round, a feat the Uzbeks dared not dream about before the competition began.

I shouted out loud when I saw the net bulge, because I really wanted to score today and my wish came true. This win’s going to give us a big confidence boost for the third match.
Uzbekistan's Bobir Davlatov on scoring against USA

Those expectations changed when the final whistle sounded against the Americans, fatigue giving way to euphoria as the Uzbeks celebrated their impressive 2-1 win, proud cries of “Uzbekistan! Uzbekistan!” ringing out from the dressing room.

Amid the jubilation, FIFA.com gauged the reactions of three of the team’s heroes, among them captain Abbosbek Makhstaliev, who kept his cool to strike the winner from the penalty spot: “This is a very important moment for us. We started to believe we could win after we got that penalty. I was very confident about it, and it’s part of my job as the captain. The American keeper is absolutely huge and I had to try and put the ball out of his reach. I waited for him to move to the right and I struck the ball low along the ground. I was so happy when I saw it cross the line. I ran to the camera and made a heart sign for our people back in Uzbekistan. It was vital for us to win this match.”

The man who set the Central Asians on the way to three precious points was Bobir Davlatov, who converted his side’s first chance after 13 minutes, curling a superb left-footed shot past Kendall McIntosh in the US goal. “One of my jobs is to do my bit up front,” said the nerveless 15-year-old. “The pass came to me and the space opened up. There was only one thing on my mind: shooting on goal, which was the best option. I shouted out loud when I saw the net bulge, because I really wanted to score today and my wish came true. This win’s going to give us a big confidence boost for the third match, which will be decisive.”

Another stand-out performer was the highly promising centre-forward Timur Khakimov, who scored Uzbekistan’s solitary goal against the New Zealanders and proved a constant menace to the American defence, teeing up Davlatov for his goal after winning the ball in the air. “I’m very happy today, even more so than when I scored in the first game,” he said. “After the defeat to New Zealand it’s great to win and get three points. We want to keep this going and win the third game too.”

Having posted that landmark win, can Evstafeev’s intrepid fledglings push back yet more boundaries by checking into the next round? The answer to that question will come on Saturday in Torreon.