Uzbekistan stand on the threshold of footballing glory at this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. Their passage to the quarter-finals runs through Torreon where they square off against AFC rivals Australia on Wednesday afternoon.
Having already reached the final of the AFC U-16 Championship in 2010, victory against the Aussie Joeys would only intensify interest in the talented youngsters who represent the future of Uzbekistan football, a promise embodied by the talismanic Abbosbek Makhstaliev. Just how much Uzbekistan rely on their captain became obvious in their first match in Mexico against New Zealand, when they slumped to a 4-1 defeat in his absence, dampening expectations and casting doubt on their ability to qualify for the round of 16.
Such pessimism proved misplaced. Returning to the side, Makhstaliev reaffirmed his status as a born leader and match-winner, outfoxing the opposition defence to claim a penalty which he converted to notch his side’s second goal in their 2-1 victory over USA. The win gave Uzbekistan their first points of the tournament and they went into their final game against Czech Republic knowing another triumph would secure them a place in the knockout stages.
That was all the motivation Uzbekistan needed, and they promptly put on their finest display of the competition to beat the attack-minded Czechs 2-1 and go to the top of the table. There are no prizes for guessing the name of the player who hit the 73rd-minute rocket that sealed their win either. The young man with the captain’s armband, Abbosbek Makhstaliev, was at it again, and won deserved praise not only for scoring the winning goals in their last two matches but for his impressive leadership of the young side. “I have to play certain roles on the pitch,” the player explains. “I support the forwards, help build our attacks and look for space. Then I just get this overwhelming desire to go for goal and score, and I’m happy to say that’s how it has turned out!”
Though a little early to start talking about a new “golden generation”, the team play with a distinctive blend of strength and skill and in Abbosbek Uzbekistan they have a junior player worthy of comparison with star midfielder Server Djeparov, captain of the national side and the 2008 AFC Player of the Year. Abbosbek has no illusions about the challenge facing him: “To achieve what Djeparov has achieved is the dream of every footballer in Uzbekistan. He was named Asian Footballer of the Year: think of the names he outperformed to win that! One day I hope to do the same.”
In their thrilling AFC Championship semi-final it was Abbosbek who scored both his side’s goals, and the youngster remembers it well: “We had to win and make it to the final. There was no way the tournament’s hosts were going to miss the chance to challenge for the title! It was a big day for us and we got the win after I scored my second in the final minute of the game. I can’t tell you how happy I was. I’d like to score again, but the most important thing is the team: it doesn’t really matter who gets the goals. We always say it’s about the team’s performance, not the achievements of individual players.”
On Wednesday, Uzbekistan will be without the support of the 30,000 fans who cheered them on in Tashkent and Australia are sure to be better prepared. Forewarned is forearmed, and Uzbekistan are taking nothing for granted. “When we run out onto the pitch we’ll be focused on giving 100 per cent,” says Abbosbek. “We want to be worthy of the national colours. We’re going to fight hard, keep moving and look for goals. It’s our chance to do something massive.”