Tajikistan has set a goal of FIFA World Cup qualification by 2026
The Central Asian nation has featured in two FIFA U-17 World Cups
Hundreds of local pitches have been built in the past few years
Tajikistan might not be familiar to many football fans, but the Central Asian nation is putting in the groundwork to ensure they ultimately become a familiar name at continental, and even global, level.
Tajikistan is a landlocked nation of some ten million inhabitants sharing borders with Kyrgyz Republic, China PR, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Formerly part of the USSR, it had just started to make a genuine impact in Soviet football only for the fall of the Iron Curtain to stymie momentum for the local game.
A couple of years ago the Tajikistan Football Federation (TFF) set about creating an ambitious goal for the nation’s No1 sport. Built on grassroots and whole-of-game development, the decade-long plan aims to conclude with qualification for the newly-expanded 2026 FIFA World Cup™.
It would be a significant achievement given Tajikistan are yet to participate at an AFC Asian Cup, and their World Cup story as an independent nation commenced only during the France 1998 qualifiers. However, two qualifications for the FIFA U-17 World Cup – a feat yet to be achieved by many neighbouring nations in the region - indicates a strong base has already been put in place.
A national association was founded in 1936 as a sub-federation of the Football Federation of the USSR. But Tajikistan had to wait until the dying days of the Soviet Union for a major breakthrough on a national scale.
28 October 1988 remains a regular reference in Tajikistan’s football narration. On that day, Pamir Dushanbe won the USSR second division and for the first time a team from Tajikistan took its place in the senior league of a sprawling 300-million strong nation.
The capital club did far more than simply make up the numbers, despite the handicap of a 6,000-kilometre round trip to reach Moscow. Backed by regular 20,000-capacity home crowds, Pamir finished mid-table in their final season and reached the Soviet Cup semi-finals before being ousted by mighty CSKA Moscow.
Four Tajiks represented the USSR during the 1970s and 80s making a handful of appearances. Many famous names in the local game came to the fore during this period, with central defender Alexei Cherednik – a 1988 Olympic gold medallist with the USSR – perhaps achieving the greatest success.
Qualifying via a rapidly developing Asian youth scene, Tajikistan’s return to the FIFA U-17 World Cup last year following a 12-year absence is another signal of an upward trend for this largely mountainous nation.
Youth and grassroots development remains a key plank of the TFF’s ‘Dream 2026’ campaign. “The Tajikistan Football Federation pays great attention to the development of youth football in the country,” TFF Media and Communications Manager Faridun Saliev told FIFA.com.
“Every year in Tajikistan, championships are held for children across [five teenage] categories. And in 2019, the Asian Football Confederation recognised the Tajikistan Youth Football League as the best in Asia.”
The sheer volume of infrastructure being made available across the country is thanks to an initiative of the nation’s president, Emomali Rahmon. More than 500 mini-pitches have been built throughout the republic over the past three years, including over 300 over the past two years in Dushanbe alone.
At international level, Tajikistan have hosted women's football and futsal tournaments run by the CAFA (Central Asian Football Association), which is headquartered in Dushanbe.
Tajikistan remain in the hunt for unprecedented qualification into the third round of AFC World Cup qualifying. Even if they fail, a maiden ticket to the Asian Cup – a feat achieved by regional rivals Kyrgyz Republic and Turkmenistan last year – is very much a realistic target.
Whether their stated aim of featuring on world football’s greatest stage in 2026 comes to fruition remains to be seen. But the building blocks of a sturdy and newly enhanced structure are certainly taking shape.