- Uzbekistan’s lowest ranking came in 1996, when they were 119th
- White Wolves have made steady progress since and now average a position of 73
- U-23 national teams’ continental triumph provides hope for the future
Uzbekistan’s march to lifting the AFC U-23 Championship in the snow of Changzhou, China PR was not simply surprising because it was their first ever title in the competition. It was surprising because of how they accomplished it. Coach Ravshan Khaydarov’s team played with style and managed results that have raised eyebrows across Asia.
Led by tournament MVP Odiljon Xamrobekov, Uzbekistan thrashed Japan 4-0 in the quarter-finals and Korea Republic 4-1 in the semi-finals en route to their maiden continental U-23 title. There is quality throughout the team, too, as their ten different goalscorers in the tournament attests.
Although the U-23s’ success does not affect their place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, it’s a sign that the central Asian powerhouse could be ready to finally realise their potential at the senior level in the coming decade.
- First international match: 2-2 draw with Tajikistan (1992)
- Biggest win: 15-0 against Mongolia (1998)
- Most-capped player: Server Djeparov (126 international caps)
- Record goalscorer: Maksim Shatskikh (34 goals)
The White Wolves have been a consistently competitive side in the Asian football landscape. The Uzbeks are perennial qualifiers in the continent’s FIFA World Cup™ final qualifying round and have been knocking on the door at the AFC Asian Cup in recent editions.
In Russia 2018 qualifying, Uzbekistan finished top of Group H in Asia’s Round 2, seeing off main challengers Korea DPR. In the third and final round, they finished above China PR and Qatar and narrowly missed out on a Round 4 play-off spot. In their last match of the qualifiers they proved to be a tough test for eventual qualifiers Korea Republic and ultimately could have got more in a goalless draw in Tashkent.
This has been a theme for Uzbekistan, especially in qualifying for Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014. To demonstrate just how close they have come to making the big dance, one only has to look at their proximity to World Cup regulars Korea Republic. In qualifying for Brazil 2014, they had the same amount of points (14) as the Taeguk Warriors but were edged out by one goal on goal difference, and eventually fell on penalties to Jordan in the play-offs. And in qualifying for Russia 2018, they finished two points behind Korea Republic, once again ruing what could have been.
There is clearly respect for the Uzbeks on the international stage, as scheduled friendlies with two World Cup-bound teams in Morocco (March) and Iran (May) indicates. So when will their moment come?
Their recent success at youth level perhaps provides an indication. The Uzbekistan squad that lifted the AFC U-23 title was made up of key players that helped their country win the AFC U-16 Championship in 2012, notably the AFC U-23 Championship's top creator Dostonbek Khamdamov and defender Akramjon Komilov.
That team went on to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 Round of 16, while two years earlier the U-17s had made it as far as the quarter-finals at Mexico 2011. That success also translated to the next level at the FIFA U-20 World Cup with consecutive quarter-final finishes at Turkey 2013 and New Zealand 2015.
“We made history and it’s one of the greatest victories for Uzbekistan football and for our country,” coach Khaydarov said after the AFC U-23 final in Changzhou.
“I haven’t thought too much about the significance, but this trophy can be very good for the future. This team is the future of our senior team.”