With tears welling up in their eyes, smiles all round and every head held high, the Uzbekistan players made no effort to conceal their emotions as they bid their fans farewell at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011. Beaten 2-0 by Uruguay in the quarter-finals, the tournament newcomers left the pitch overcome by an intense combination of disappointment, joy and pride.
“I feel split: I’m very sad about today’s result but delighted by how well my team played throughout the competition,” coach Aleksey Evstafeev told FIFA.com. “We did a good job here. We proved to the whole world that we have a great team. I told my players they could be proud of themselves despite the defeat. They deserve to be thanked because they did fantastically well. I want to thank them.”
The feelings of gratitude are likely to be reciprocal as Evstafeev merits copious praise himself for honing a side capable of moving mountains. After taking Uzbekistan to the AFC U-16 Championship showpiece last year, he leaves Mexico having steered them to the last eight on the global stage. For a team that had never before appeared at this level, that has to qualify as a superb achievement.
"I refuse to say that some of this success is down to me,” he stated. “In fact, for me, it’s a great result but not as far as we can go. We still have a lot of work to do. I’d also like to underline the work of the Uzbek government and the Uzbekistan Football Federation in training youngsters and helping football in our country more generally. They give a lot and we owe it to ourselves to fight hard on the pitch in return.”
The future certainly looks bright for the sport in the former Soviet republic, with their run to the Mexico 2011 quarter-finals coming after a pair of successful campaigns to reach the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “It’s symbolic that, for the most part, my players were born in 1994, the same year as Uzbekistan’s last big win, in the Asian Games,” added Evstafeev. “I hope that’s a sign.”
The country has grown used to lean years since winning gold at Hiroshima 1994, their very first Asian Games outing after independence, but with talents such as Abbosbek Makhstaliev, Timur Khakimov and Ganisher Kholmurodov coming through, a revival could well be on the cards. “Just taking part in a tournament like this gives you a lot of experience, and that goes for both players and staff,” said the coach. “We’ve learnt an enormous amount by playing against the best teams in the world. The future of Uzbek football is ours to build.”
That sentiment has found a strong echo back in Tashkent and throughout the team’s homeland, where supporters have made light of the late kick-off times to follow their progress closely. “We’ll get a truer idea of what we’ve achieved when we return to Uzbekistan,” Evstafeev explained with a broad grin. “The whole country was behind us. They stayed up at night to watch our games and give us their backing.
“Everything has been great for us: the hospitality, the organisation, the fans and the good results,” he added. “We’ve had a fantastic experience and we’ll leave Mexico with heavy hearts.” That is easy to imagine, though his is likely to feel heavier than most since he is still unsure whether the Uruguay reverse will prove his last match in charge of this squad.
“I’ve been working with these players for four years,” he said. “In a way, I consider myself like a father to them. That makes everything more intense, but right now I don’t know what’s going to happen either for myself or my players. I’m still digesting this defeat and it’s difficult to think about tomorrow.” One thing remains sure, however: with such a fine set of players and a gifted tactician at the helm, tomorrow ought to take care of itself.