Dilshod Rakhmatov's telephone was ringing off the hook. Messages and calls flooded in, the Uzbek futsal star barely having time to catch his breath or process what was going on. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of taking his country through to the FIFA Futsal World Cup for the very first time, he was somewhat caught up in the moment.
The excitement sparked by this groundbreaking achievement was heightened by the fact that qualification was sealed on home territory, as the runners-up at the 2016 AFC Futsal Championship. "I'll never forget that competition in Tashkent. We had the chance to play in front of our wonderful fans and we accomplished our target," the 26-year-old told FIFA.com.
Having also featured in the 2012 and 2014 editions, this year's AFC Championship campaign was the Ardus attacker's third. Two years ago, Rakhmatov and his team-mates took the final spot on the podium, but at that time the tournament did not offer up tickets to the Futsal World Cup. This February's second-place finish was therefore a double milestone for Uzbek futsal, one that looks to be already having major repercussions on the sport's popularity in the country.
New coach, new philosophy"I have a feeling that people are really starting to get interested in futsal. I think we managed to capture their attention and get them into the game. I've had a lot of calls and text messages from people asking me how they can sign up their kids for a futsal club," said Rakhmatov, who notched a brace in the 3-0 quarter-final victory over Iraq that clinched Uzbekistan's berth at Colombia 2016.
While talking up the supporters' role in spurring on the players, the No7 was also at pains to pay tribute to the contribution of coach Jose Maria Pazos Mendez, heralding him as the architect behind his side's historic exploits.
Pulpis, as the Spaniard is nicknamed, has made a massive impact at the helm of the Uzbek national team, a post he has held since 2011, albeit with one brief hiatus. "He has changed a lot in our country. Since he arrived, we've seen futsal in a different light. Thanks to him, we understand the futsal philosophy much better now," said the goalscorer, who found the net five times in total on the road to Colombia.
Two prestigious testsRakhmatov and his team-mates are now eagerly awaiting the start of their first Futsal World Cup adventure. They have been drawn in Group A, alongside Portugal, the hosts and Panama, against whom they open their campaign. As part of their preparations for the tournament, the Uzbeks organised a number of friendlies in the months beforehand, even embarking on a tour of the Iberian peninsula during which they faced both Spain and Portugal.
These outings gave Rakhmatov an appreciation of the challenge posed by the futsal elite: "The Portuguese have some very strong individuals. Players like Ricardinho exposed our defensive vulnerabilities. The Spaniards, meanwhile, have one of the best collective units in the world. Up against those sorts of teams, the slightest error can be very costly."
Rakhmatov has been playing futsal for nine years now. An international since 2010, he is gearing up for the highlight of his career so far, an event which he has entered brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. Naturally, there will be fewer Uzbek supporters in Cali than there were in Tashkent, but the atmosphere is sure to be equally electric. Furthermore, the forward is hopeful that he will be receiving plenty more congratulatory and encouraging messages and calls from those back in his homeland.