Minimalist Tajikistan reap maximum rewards

  • Outsiders take down African champions Cameroon

  • Strong defence and quick counters the secret to their success

  • "Surprise? Not in the slightest!"

Twelve years ago Tajikistan took part in their first, and up until this year, only FIFA U-17 World Cup™. In 2007 in Korea Republic, they secured a 4-3 win over USA in their opening match, and despite two 1-0 defeats after that by Belgium and Tunisia, they still managed to create history by making it into the Round of 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.

History may be in line to repeat itself here in Brazil, with the Asian team opening their Group E campaign with a shock 1-0 win over African champions Cameroon. "A surprise? Not in the slightest," coach Zainidin Rahimov told "We already showed what we were capable of against the big teams in the qualifiers, so we knew that we stood a chance here."

Indeed, Tajikistan saw off first Korea DPR then Korea Republic in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship respectively, both times on penalties. By the end of the tournament, they had scored six goals in as many matches and finished second only to Japan.

This minimalist trend seems set to continue, with a single goal from the penalty spot enough to see off their African opponents. "I’m very proud of my goal," said Sharifbek Rahmatov who converted the spot-kick. "Of course I was a bit nervous before taking it, but I focused on the ball and then just hit it. It went in, and the celebrations started."

The goal was set up by a long clearance from goalkeeper Shohrukh Qirghizboev, who somewhat surprisingly replaced the shoot-out hero from the qualifiers Mukhriddin Khasanov in goal. Amadoni Kamolov and Rustam Soirov, both of whom had been brought on as substitutes, played a one-two and the only way the Cameroon keeper Manfred Ekoi could stop them was illegally.

"Kamolov and Rustam are important players for us who could easily be part of the starting line-up," the coach explained, "but it’s obviously great that we can have players like that on the bench who can come on during the match."

Tajikistan thought they had scored a second goal that was typical of their counter-attacking style, with a long ball sent up front, a sprint, a dribble and a shot that found the back of the net. Unfortunately for them, it was ruled out by the video assistant referee for a foul.

"It was a shame as that would have really helped us. Cameroon were strong and had plenty of chances to equalise. A second goal would have been good," the coach continued. They were also reduced to ten men for the last half an hour after Shuhrat Elmurodov picked up a second yellow card, meaning the result was in doubt right up to the end.

In the eighth minute of time added on, the Lions had one last attack but Qirghizboev was equal to it, pulling off a save that ushered in the final whistle and the ensuing outpouring of joy, as Rahmatov and his team-mates hugged one another, fell to the ground and celebrated a huge win over the African heavyweights. "Today we celebrate the win," said Rahimov, "tomorrow we focus on the next match."

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