The FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 continues to keep supporters enthralled as it serves up thrills and spills galore. The tone was set in a memorable group stage that featured hefty scorelines and superb individual displays, not least the eight goals notched up by Côte d'Ivoire’s Souleymane Coulibaly in the space of just three games. There have been surprises too, with European champions the Netherlands heading home at the very first hurdle.
Newcomers Uzbekistan have likewise been raising plenty of eyebrows, seeing off USA and the Czech Republic to secure top spot in Group D and qualify for the knockout phase. Few predicted that outcome before the tournament began, as the Stars and Stripes are old hands at this level and the Czechs are regarded as one of the strongest teams in Europe. Even fellow section rivals New Zealand were not appearing for the first time, but the Central Asians defied expectations to finish above them all.
The team’s coach Aleksey Evstafeev was practically a lone voice in backing Uzbekistan to succeed, and he has clearly transmitted that confidence to his players. “We came here to show our style of play and we managed to eliminate the mistakes we made against New Zealand,” he said. “We put our goalscoring chances away and played with a lot of aggression. That’s why we got through to the round of 16.”
As section winners, the Uzbeks might have thought they had silenced the doubters. But Even that was insufficient to convince everyone, however, and the central Asians went into Wednesday’s last-16 contest with Australia determined to prove they merited their place and could go far in the competition. The match in Torreon thus had all the potential to be a historic moment in the nation's football, with the stakes much higher than the meeting between the two at the 2010 AFC U-16 Championship in Tashkent. Neither camp needed to be reminded of the game’s heightened importance and, as both teams took to the Estadio Torreon pitch, they resolved to give everything to seal a spot in the quarter-finals.
There was an intensity etched into all 22 faces during the national anthems, but as the match got underway it quickly became clear the Uzbeks harboured the greater ambition. Intent on attacking from the start, they did not have to wait long to go ahead, and it was forward and captain Abbosbek Makhstaliev who opened the scoring after 11 minutes. They then denied their opponents a prompt response thanks to some solid defending, and their dream of reaching the last eight took on even more tangible form when Timur Khakimov struck five minutes before the break.
Evstafeev’s charges continued to attack after the restart and once again looked the more dangerous going forward, making their pressure count when Australia’s Connor Chapman put past his own goalkeeper on 66 minutes. Not content with that, Uzbekistan managed to put additional gloss on a fine performance as Davlatbek Yarbekov delivered a late, final blow. All that remained then was the whistle, which was greeted by ecstatic celebrations from the victors, who raced over to their coach to share in a wonderful moment for this young and promising football nation.
The heavy 4-0 scoreline felt a little like payback for an even more one-sided outcome between the countries at senior level. Australia’s 6-0 rout in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup semi-finals in Qatar is unlikely to be forgotten for some time in Uzbekistan, but Evstafeev denied that his players had sought vengeance. “The word ‘revenge’ isn’t part of our vocabulary,” he said. “Of course, that was a major disappointment that affected us a lot. It was a match in which nothing went our way, but today we wanted to show the world we’re capable of playing good football. It was important for us to win by this margin to pay tribute to our national team and our supporters.”
No sooner had the action started to unfold in Torreon than rising star Khakimov set about displaying his impressive range of attacking talents. The No11 was one of the principal architects of the win and is the darling of the Uzbek faithful, having attracted a throng of supporters keen to have their picture taken with him as he arrived at the stadium.
After the game, a party atmosphere took hold in the victorious dressing room, where Khakimov belted out a few Uzbek standards. Showered and dressed, he then kept close to Evstafeev as his coach fielded questions for FIFA.com, before overcoming his timidity to give his own impressions. “We’ve done it,” he said. “It’s a very important win for us. We wanted to bring even more joy to our compatriots. We know a lot of them stay up late to follow our games and that they’re praying for us.”
The forward’s goal was his third in the competition so far and he has also weighed in with a pair of assists. “It’s something special to have scored three goals,” he added. “The fact that I helped my team-mates is just as important to me, though. I’m really happy to have won. I’ve dreamed of this moment and, thanks to God, we did what we had to by playing well. We’ve earned recognition from everyone.” The youngster is not one to mince his words but was no doubt speaking for the entire squad when he looked ahead to the rest of the competition. “We want to go all the way,” he explained. “We want to win this World Cup.”
Khakimov and co face Uruguay in the quarter-finals and, although they will need to be on their toes, the South American challengers have yet to fully convince. After defeating Canada 3-0 in their opening game, they laboured to a last-gasp 1-0 success against Rwanda before succumbing 2-0 to England, and their round-of-16 meeting with Congo was hardly more reassuring. It was the African side who struck first, in fact, before Uruguay clawed their way back to prevail 2-1.
Despite those showings, Evstafeev is not about to let complacency affect his players now. “We’ll analyse our opponents closely,” he said. “But what matters most for us is to stay true to ourselves match after match. We want to do Uzbek football proud.” More than that, the coach believes Uzbekistan have “a legitimate right” to dream of victory, but whether they reach the semi-finals or leave Mexico after their next encounter, his team can return home bristling with pride.