Ten years ago Uzbekistan’s U-20 side made their first appearance in a FIFA U-20 World Cup when they competed in the finals of UAE 2003, and six years later they had a second bite at the cherry at Egypt 2009. Those two showings reaped the Uzbeks a solitary point, but now, with the finals of Turkey 2013 just a few weeks away, hopes are high that this side can emulate their country’s achievements at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 and make a real impact.
Talking exclusively to FIFA.com, team coach Ahmadjon Musaev insisted that the time has come for Uzbekistan’s youngsters to fulfil their promise. The coach has set a few targets for his side’s Turkish campaign, with qualifying from the group stages being a clear priority. But in the longer term he aims to give this talented generation the tools they need to take them into the senior national team and cement the country’s reputation as one of Asia’s top sides.
FIFA.com: Let’s start with the most recent event. What did you think of the FIFA U-20 World Cup draw and how do you rate your chances on the back of it?
Ahmadjon Musaev: I believe it was an excellent draw as far as we’re concerned. We’re up against a good range of footballing styles from other continents (Croatia, Uruguay and New Zealand), and I reckon everyone’s got an equal chance of qualifying. I don’t see it as a real problem – we should be able to get one of the qualifying berths. I’ve got faith in our ability to do that.
This will be Uzbekistan’s third time at the tournament. Your previous results haven’t been too encouraging, so are you ready to turn things around?
Yes. We’re all too aware that our appearances in 2003 and 2009 weren’t all they could have been, or at least what we would have expected. A single draw from six games is obviously not what we aim for. However, as I said, I’ve great faith in my side’s ability, and this time round we hope to put on a better performance and get results. The change we’re looking for is to qualify for the second round and write a new chapter in Uzbekistan’s history at this important tournament.
How do you gear up for the tournament? Do you make any special preparations to face sides that play a different brand of football?
Certainly we do. In order make a serious challenge at this competition we’ve drawn up an appropriate schedule of friendlies. For instance, we played Turkey in March, and in April we set up a training camp in Portugal, where we had two important games against their national side. We’ve still got a number of matches to play before we hit our physical and technical peak.
Let’s talk about the AFC U-19 Championship 2012. What were your objectives there and tell us a little about how you secured one of the qualifying berths for Turkey 2013.
When you take part in a continental championship with the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, your number one priority is naturally to get one of the berths on offer. There were four Asian qualifying slots up for grabs and getting one involved an exhausting year spent playing in qualifiers, then preparing for the tournament itself. When we went to the UAE we were focussed on qualifying, and to make this happen we became a single family unit, everyone looking out for each other. We were very organized on the pitch, put in some great performances and finished the group stages at the top of Group C ahead of Jordan, Korea DPR and Vietnam. We reached our goal against Syria in the second round. We were just delighted. To represent the country at a major international tournament is a great honour.
When Ghana won in 2009 they showed that even the big sides can’t take anything for granted.
Was your toughest game at the AFC Championship the one that sealed your qualification against Syria?
The fact is that to get to the second round we had to get past former title-holders Korea DPR. If we beat them we would progress and keep the World Cup dream alive, but if we lost we’d have to go home and bid our dreams goodbye. We played hard, dominated and got two goals. The win gave us enormous self-belief and we went into the second round top of our group. Everything hinged on the Syria game: it was amazing. All our dreams hung on the outcome. We went behind twice but secured the draw and took it to penalties. Psychologically we were the stronger side. We netted the first three attempts and our opponent missed. I felt this huge sense of relief because we’d achieved our goal and I was so pleased with the boys. They gathered round me, picked me up and threw me in the air to celebrate. I was so happy at that moment.
You’ve had a number of players from previous tournaments go on to star in the senior team and raise the level of Uzbekistan football. Are there any new names on the horizon and can you tell us who they are?
It’s very satisfying to see the youth sides turning out so many future stars. It’s an important role of these squads. This time, I can see that we won’t be taking about just a few promising youngsters. In fact I’m certain that in this side we’re looking at great deal of talented players who will all go on to perform great things for their national side. It makes it difficult to pick out any names at this stage, but I would recommend you keep your eye on the group games in Turkey.
The last two decades of the FIFA U-20 World Cup have been dominated by Argentina and Brazil, who have won eight out of ten tournaments. Will their absence from this edition give other sides a better chance of glory? Do you have any candidates for the title?
Brazil and Argentina have always been serious contenders in this competition. They’ve actually won 11 titles out of a total of 18. So sure, their absence might well give others an opportunity, why not? It’s true that the tournament has traditionally been divided between South America and Europe, but when Ghana won in 2009 they showed that even the big sides can’t take anything for granted. The important thing is to try hard on the pitch. I can’t say I’ve got any favourites as yet. Things change during tournaments and contenders might emerge who weren’t fancied at the start. I believe that every one of the 24 teams has a chance.
How do you see your future once Turkey 2013 is finished? Do you want to stay with the team or will you be on the lookout for new opportunities?
It is hard to talk about the future right now. I always prefer to focus on the task in hand. It’s an important moment in my career to lead a team at the World Cup, and I like to take a step-by-step approach. Therefore I’m not considering anything else right now. After this task is over I’ll take a look then.