Having won the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup in 2006, and then narrowly failing to repeat the feat two years ago, Central Asian nation Tajikistan enter this February's third edition of the tournament aiming to confirm their dominance with a second title. While coach Pulod Kodirov’s charges can take heart from a proud local record, the team has also received a recent morale boost courtesy of a 17-place elevation in this month’s FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, which catapulted them to their current position of 148.

A 1-0 friendly win in Yemen earlier this year provided much of the impetus, having lost 2-1 to the same opponents four days earlier. The dual performances suggest that Kodriov’s charges are moving into form heading into the continental campaign in Sri Lanka, 16-27 February.

This was not, however, the first time that Tajikistan have made an impact in the world pecking order. They reached 114 in July of 1997; their highest-ever slot in the FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking. This status could largely be attributed to their impressive display during 1998 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, when they bagged four wins including a 5-0 thrashing of neighbouring Turkmenistan.

Continental emergence
Football has long been the number one sport in the mountainous country, which gained independence in 1991 becoming affiliated to FIFA in 1994. Since then, the former Soviet republic had made little impression on the international scene until they tasted their maiden continental success four years ago.

After their numerous near-misses against Asia’s big boys, Tajikistan’s hopes of achievement at the continental level were granted in 2006 with the inception of the AFC Challenge Cup, a second-tier competition for Asia’s developing football nations.

Then under Sharif Nazarov, Tajikistan ran riot in the inaugural competition, storming into the knockout stage where they swept past the likes of Palestine and Kyrgyzstan to set up the final clash against Sri Lanka. The game proved a memorable one for the Tajiks, who fired four unanswered goals past the South Asians to claim the coveted title.

They would again make it to the final of the tournament’s second edition in 2008 with Kodirov in charge. In the process they overcame a young Korea DPR side, several of whom would figure prominently in their successful qualifying for South Africa 2010. But against hosts India in the final they lacked the drive and thrust they had shown in the early stages, losing 4-1 to concede the title, and with it a coverted berth at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, to Bob Houghton’s home side.

Two years on Kodirov’s men again embark on the Asian competition determined to bring the trophy back to Dushanbe and rectify the near-miss of two years ago. “The Tajikistan Football Federation has given us the target to qualify for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and to achieve that we will have to win this tournament,” Kodirov stated recently. “We will try to prepare better so that we arrive at Colombo in our best shape.”