When he pipped the likes of Ismael Matar and Sebastian Soria to the AFC Player of the Year award in 2008, it seemed that Server Djeparov had come from nowhere to clinch the coveted Asian crown. Three years later, however, the Uzbekistan talisman stepped onto the podium in Kuala Lumpur for his second individual accolade to significant continental acclaim.
Indeed, it was a fitting end to a year in which Djeparov has been turning over new ground with the national team. He excelled in his captaincy and playmaking role as the Central Asians stormed into the last four for the first time in January's AFC Asian Cup, before going on to help his side seal early progression to Asia's final qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Now, he is the first player to twice reign in Asia since the back-to-back wins of Japan icon Hidetoshi Nakata's in 1996 and 1997.
"I am very happy to win the title for a second time," the 29-year-old told FIFA.com after Wednesday’s ceremony. "It is every Asian player's dream to win the continent's top individual title so this is important to me. When I was first named the AFC Player of the Year three years ago, it showed that I had reached the level where I can compete against Asia's best. By recapturing it this time, I have proved I have maintained my performance level throughout the years."
Recent years have seen Djeparov develop from an emerging star into Uzbekistan's leading player, a fact underlined when he inherited the captain's armband from White Wolves maestro Maksim Shatskikh. The midfielder excelled so well in his new role that Uzbekistan coach Vadim Abramov has paid tribute to the progress he has made.
"Djeparov has grown into a key player of the team," the 58-year-old tactician told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "He is the team's playmaker and with the experiences he has reaped over recent years, he is capable of the skippering duties."
We have a high-quality side, which should be the best squad in [our] history... we can fulfil the World Cup mission this time.
He may have captained his team through many tough battles throughout the year, including opening the scoring in their 1-1 draw against Asian champions Japan and providing the leadership as his side secured successive victories over South Africa 2010 finalists Korea DPR. Despite these showings, however, he singled out their 2-1 defeat of Kuwait at Qatar 2011 as his most memorable game of the past year.
"I chose this game because I think it was a good game during which I scored a good goal," he said. It was Uzbekistan's second group match, having overcome hosts Qatar 2-0 in the opener where Djeparov was also on target. Shatskikh put Uzbekistan ahead with a deflected free-kick and, although Bader Al Mutawa levelled for the rivals with a penalty, Djeparov scored the match-winner through a thunderous long-range strike.
Having twice won the Asian individual title, it is natural that Djeparov has switched his sights to the FIFA World Cup stage. After enduring the failed campaigns of Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, he believes that the team's past experiences will stand them in good stead during the next qualifying stage.
"My chief goal is to help my country secure our first-ever qualification for the FIFA World Cup at Brazil 2014," he went on. "We failed at the final hurdle on the road to the last World Cups so I think we won't miss it for the third consecutive time. We have proved we are capable of the task and we must now realise it."
His confidence is not without basis, given their campaign in Asia's third qualifying phase saw them amongst the first group of teams to book passage to the last ten.
"Obviously we have developed into a highly competitive team in Asia. We played well against Japan and we dominated both legs against Korea DPR. We have a high-quality side, which should be the best squad in [our] history, with a host of overseas-based players and talented youngsters. In one word, we can fulfil the World Cup mission this time."