Progressing Tajiks enjoy all-time high
© AFP

With over 90 per cent of their land covered by mountains, Tajikistan is an ideal place for sports like rock-climbing and hiking. However, it is Tajikistan’s national team, nicknamed The Crown,  that invariably dominates the local headlines as football enjoys huge popularity among the country’s seven-million inhabitants.

The football-mad central Asians won the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup in 2006 and the junior side represented Asia at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup, indicating Tajikistan can back up their passion with solid performances. The former Soviet republic received another immense boost this month by soaring 40 places up April's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking to hit an all-time high of 112 in the global pecking order.

The move, their biggest since becoming affiliated to FIFA in 1994, came on the back of their runners-up performance in 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying in Kyrgyzstan. Captain Khurshed Mahmudov struck the only goal as coach Nikola Kavazovic's side edged Pakistan in the opener, before a Jamshed Ismailov brace helped them defeat Macau 3-0, leaving the Tajiks on the brink of qualification.

Their hopes for a fifth consecutive appearance at the AFC Challenge Cup were shattered, however, after losing to hosts Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in unexpected fashion. This was only their second loss at the hands of their neighbours in eight meetings. Despite the disappointment they moved up to 13th place in Asia, trailing Saudi Arabia but leading a pair of former FIFA World Cup participants in Kuwait and Korea DPR.

"The victories belonged to the players," coach Kavazovic told FIFA.com, "they possess a great deal of talent and are working very hard. Although we failed to qualify for the Challenge Cup finals, my ambition with the team is to reach the 2015 AFC Asian Cup for the first time."

Emerging power
While Tajikistan have never qualified for a FIFA World Cup and have yet to reach the AFC Asian Cup finals, their best performance came during their Asian debut in 1996 during the continent's flagship competition. Facing Central Asians powers Uzbekistan in a qualifying playoff, the Tajiks pulled off a fantastic 4-0 result at home, only to concede five unanswered goals away at Tashkent to narrowly lose out on aggregate.

They put in a series of brilliant showings in their first qualifying campaign for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ as well, including a resounding 5-0 win against Turkmenistan and holding hosts China to a goalless draw. But a 1-0 loss at home to the Chinese cost them the top place, leaving the East Asians to qualify for the final stage at their expense.

Such failures didn't prevent them from excelling in Asia's second-tier competitions such as the AFC Challenge Cups, however, when they thrashed Sri Lanka 4-0 in the final to win their first Asian silverware in 2006. They would reach the final again at the next AFC Challenge Cup two years later, only to lose to hosts India led by Englishman Bob Houghton. After finishing third in 2010, they failed to progress beyond the group stage last year with losses to Korea DPR and a fast-improving Philippines.

Accomplishments for Tajikistan at the club level are arguably greater, with teams from the landlocked country claiming four of the eight past AFC President's Cup crowns, a tournament designated for Asia's emerging footballing countries. Seven-time Tajik champions Regar TadAZ won the inaugural title in 2005 before completing a continental treble with back-to-back successes in 2008 and 2009. Dushanbe giants Istiqlol were the next side to lift the trophy, who reigned supreme in Asia last year under none other than Kavazovic.

With their FA’s sustained efforts, football infrastructures have largely been improved over the past decade courtesy of financial assistance from FIFA. Their FA headquarters was completed in 2002, before a Football Turf pitch was constructed four year later in Dushanbe - both of which can be attributed to FIFA’s Goal Programme.

It remains to be seen how long it will take Tajikistan to reach the caliber of Asia’s elite. But with their consistent progress, best evidenced by their 1-1 draw against Korea DPR on the road to Brazil 2014, the Tajiks are certainly hopeful and capable of achieving new heights in the near future.