Uzbekistan ready to make more history
Uzbekistan have enjoyed football prosperity since independence in 1991 and that growth continued throughout 2012. The former Soviet Republic has seen brilliant continental form displayed by their youth sides who have qualified for this year’s FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups, while the national senior side have been faring well in Asia's final qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
At club level, Tashkent giants Bunyodkor reached the last four in the 2012 AFC Champions League for the second time. All these achievements have, understandably, left UFF (Uzbekistan Football Federation) President Mirabor Usmanov a very contented man.
"Honestly, it has been our efforts over recent years which have now started bearing fruit," he told FIFA.com. "When I took office, we decided to first improve the facilities for national teams, especially in youth and grassroots level. We established new football schools and academies, built and renovated stadiums as we aimed to improve the various infrastructures."
"We also remade our business plan with a focus on creating new opportunities for all national teams," he went on. “We made it obligatory to have a number of training camps abroad to earn international experience. And we also made major reforms in our national championships. Now we are very happy that we are moving in the right direction."
The Uzbekistan government has also been provided valuable support, according to Usmanov. All their goals could not have been fully realised had it not been for the governmental help.
"Our country's President Islam Karimov gave us great support,” said Usmanov. “He signed a series of decrees to open doors for businessmen and fans. These documents ensured us with more investment, much of which we could spend on youth and grassroots.”
To reward those clubs for producing talent, the Fund of Uzbek Football Support has been established by the government, with the supervisor being none other than the country’s Prime Minister.
"Now, differing from the past, all clubs are strongly recommended to provide the national teams with talented youngsters,” Usmanov continued. “We rely on this fund to make reforms and to reward clubs, youth and grassroots coaches for their efforts. as well as to provide young players with special grants."
The hard work paid dividends with the youth teams the first to win acclaim. Having qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, the Central Asians stormed into the semi-finals at last year's AFC U-19 Championship to progress to Turkey 2013.
Even more impressive were the U-17 side, who booked their maiden global appearance at Mexico 2011, where they bravely finished in the last eight. On the back of that, they went on to win last year's Asian Championship - their first continental title since winning gold in the 1994 Asian Games – to seal their place at United Arab Emirates 2013.
"Our U-17 side's showings in Mexico proved that any team can expect success, if they work hard," the UFF boss continued. "It was a big surprise to see the Uzbek youngsters reach the last eight. Now entering our second appearance as Asian champions, I think we should at least reach the knockout stage."
The only disappointment they had during 2012 was a narrow failure to reach the Men's Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012. After an impressive campaign, Uzbekistan threw away a two-goal lead to lose out to UAE 3-2 at home in the decider to miss out on their first-ever place at the global showpiece.
For Usmanov, meanwhile, lessons must be learned by their senior team if they are to fulfil their qualifying mission for Brazil 2014.
"Our wins in Qatar and Iran largely improved our chances," he commented on a side who are currently sitting atop in their group, also featured Korea Republic and Lebanon. "But all the other teams have their own share of chances so this is a very complicated group. Next we face Lebanon in March, and June will be crucial for us as we take on Qatar and Korea Republic. We must win all three games to qualify."
Despite the difficulties ahead, Uzbekistan, coached by Mirdjalal Kasimov and boasting some of Asia's brightest shining stars in two-time AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov, forward Alexander Geynrikh and goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov, are hopeful of finishing the amongst section's top-two to seal their maiden FIFA World Cup qualification.
"It is time for us to make history," stated Usmanov with a tone of conviction. “It will be a feat deserved by us, our people, and our Uzbekistan as an independent country."