As September and the latest round of World Cup / Asian Cup qualifiers draws ever closer, Tom Danicek tries to set the mood in your living room with his special feature on Uzbekistan and their youth. In the first part, he takes a look at the recent U-20 World Cup and some of their outstanding prospects…
Uzbekistan is a bit of an odd one out as far as the Asian footballing scene is concerned, isn’t it? You talk about the Middle East, the Far East, India or Australia as stand-alone subjects… but you barely talk about Uzbekistan. It doesn’t seem to fit anywhere, not even in a simplistic West-East perspective.
Uzbekistan is just different. Irrevocably associated with the former Soviet Union, hence carrying a touch of Eastern European scent. Widely respected albeit not featuring at a single World Cup or at least in an international play-off in their history. Producing distinguished talents without registering a club side with Asian Champions League final experience; falling behind post-1991 Oman, Syria or Thailand.
If there’s one common knowledge about Uzbekistan, it’s that they’re the ultimate chokers. And however harsh that tag may be, it is indeed impossible to associate a significant achievement with the celebrated likes of Server Djeparov, Aleksandar Geynrikh, Ignatiy Nesterov, Maksim Shatskikh, Mirjalol Qosimov and others. Which is an enigma in itself.
Uzbekistan have long made for one of the most rigid national teams on the continent; the whole core came through sometime around 2007 and only earlier this year – when Qosimov benched Djeparov and Kapadze halfway through the Asian Cup – it looked to be not so untouchable for the first time in around a decade.
Nowadays, the transition is definitely underway. And it bloody well should be, since there’s no shortage of intriguing material to choose from.
The first post-Soviet children are getting better all-round education, some proper youth academies are being established since the turn of the new millennium, and two consecutive U-20 World Cup appearances are a clear testament to the improving work with kids.
Is this the first Uzbek breed to eventually – and finally – taste the World Cup atmosphere?
On June 7, Uzbekistan became the only Asian side other than Japan and South Korea to earn back-to-back appearances in the U-20 World Cup elimination rounds. It was a massive achievement, further strengthened by the following (and pretty convincing) progress to the quarter-finals.
The year 2013 repeated itself, only this time young Uzbeks were not thrashed by the eventual winners and instead fought hard with Senegal who edged the game through one sole strike.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan had showcased some unseen continuity. Of course, Japan have reached the Round of 16 three times in a row and twice in their history, but they are no measure for the White Wolves in this respect.
United Arab Emirates are; and they followed up on their fine home efforts in 2003 by missing out on the next two editions. Or perhaps Iraq are; and not even they could’ve capitalized on the impressive fourth place from 2013 – again failing to qualify for this year’s tournament to begin with.
Clearly, to be able to produce two competitive bunches of youngsters in this short space of time, that speaks volumes about the state of youth development in your country, but before we talk about the prominent Uzbek academies and their contribution, let’s evaluate precisely how special all these up-and-coming starlets are…
Iskanderov slows down, Sergeev marches on
Since the very first day, every debate about a potential flagship of the 2013 U-20 World Cup side revolves around Jamshid Iskanderov.
He’s been clearly getting the most love from the fans and it’s understandable: lots of them see a new Server Djeparov in him. He’s after all a left-footed attacking midfielder, not particularly picky position-wise, roaming freely behind the striker, and starting up his career at Pakhtakor. Too many similarities to just shrug off.
Jamshid Iskanderov also had a fantastic year in 2014, culminating in him being voted the best player in the Uzbek League, so he doesn’t really need any fancy labels to get by either. He’s a serious deal all on his own.
At the tender age of 21, Iskanderov has already ranked among the three best Uzbekistan Footballers of the Year twice (2nd in 2013, 3rd last time around), which not even Server Djeparov or Maksim Shatskikh could possibly claim – and they both combine for six overall triumphs in this very poll, decided by sport journalists and other experts.
Sadly and somewhat disturbingly, though, Iskanderov is hardly going to earn a third consecutive nomination, because he hasn’t started a competitive game for four months now. He came back for a brief period in July only to get injured again.
After a difficult Asian Cup, where he probably should’ve played a bigger role, this is another considerable setback for his promising career. Almost a Wilshere-esque start.
Anyway, there are still some 2013 U-20 World Cup protagonists who are fulfilling their potential pretty much completely, without having to overcome any such obstacles.
Abbosbek Makhsatalliev and Sardor Rakhmanov now form the spine of a respectable top flight side (Neftchi). The then Uzbekistan captain Vladimir Kozak has developed into a solid box-to-box midfielder and should see some playing time in the upcoming qualifiers, as the new Uzbekistan head coach Samvel Babayan is partly responsible for his recent step up on the club scene.
And above all, there towers a growing phenomenon in the shape of Pakhtakor’s striker Igor Sergeev. While many may be subconsciously forgetting about Iskanderov, the 2012 U-19 Asian Cup top scorer has been red hot lately and seems to be hitting his stride at the right time…
At this very moment, Igor Sergeev is the joint-top scorer in the PFL when it comes to goals from open play (14). This April, just before his 22nd birthday, the tall striker finally bagged his first professional hat trick, which now complements six more braces.
Only throughout this season Sergeev has decided six competitive games, while he’s reserved a solid five strikes for encounters with the league top six.
Since 2009 and Odil Akhmedov (21 years old back then), no such young lad managed to get even close to the 15-goal mark without help of a penalty or two; Igor Sergeev is now just one goal removed from the same mark, with as many as 10 rounds to go!
Even when we include spot kicks, to put together 20 tallies as Shuhrat Mirkholdirshoev and Farhod Tadjiyev did in 2005 and 2007 respectively – accounting for best league exploits from U-23 Uzbeks in the past decade – that also sounds like a totally doable task.
Not so much Jafar Irismetov’s overall record of 34 tallies (as a 20-year-old in 1997!), but that was an anomaly; as was Mirkholdirshoev’s 31 goals seven years later.
Moreover, these two guys rank 7th and 6th respectively among all-time top goalscorers in the Oliy Liga history (from 1992), and so there’s no shame in trailing to them. Not to mention Sergeev has already mustered a much more fruitful international career than those two (with no U-20 World Cup, let alone Asian Cup appearances).
So yeah, Igor Sergeev is a pretty special young fellow.
Some would maybe say he’s too dependent on others’ services, but I find this particular argument to be a little harsh, because you could easily turn it right over. It’s also Sergeev, who often makes his companions look like better passers or crossers than they actually are. Even they rely on him, to some extent anyway.
Igor Sergeev possesses the proverbial sixth sense, you see; the striker’s instinct. He’s fantastic at anticipating action and adjusting to it swiftly.
Many of his goals are rebounds, yes, but a high percentage of them could hardly be classified as automatic ones. For a tall lad, he’s as deft as they come, and if ‘tapping in’ was a university major, Igor Sergeev would most certainly hold the master’s degree in it.
Quite naturally, the Taskhent-born forward is also one excellent header of the ball and especially when you cross from the left, you can be almost entirely sure he’s going to convert your delivery into a goal. He loves the spot at that near post more than anything else in the world, it appears.
All above mentioned things considered, much is now expected from Sergeev going into the September qualifiers. More so when you acknowledge he – similarly to Iskanderov – didn’t really show what he’s capable of at the Asian Cup.
It all started very well, as his tournament debut was a dreamy one. Neither Shatskih nor Geynrikh – two of the three most prolific Uzbek internationals ever – were able to score on their opening nights. Yet Sergeev did impressively.
However, the young striker would then struggle for the rest of the tournament, and even in general, he had never really cut it under Mirjalol Qosimov. The former national team mainstay spent most of the time sending out mixed signals; ignoring 23-year-old Abdukholiqov for a supposed “lack of goals” and selecting even less potent strikers like Shodiev and Nasimov instead.
This missing confidence towards Igor Sergeev shouldn’t be the case anymore, though, with the forward’s prominent mentor suddenly in place. Samvel Babayan – possibly the first Uzbekistan NT manager with a university degree – had coached Pakhtakor since the beginning of 2014, so he’d basically overseen the whole rise of Sergeev’s comet.
Along with his two teammates, promising centre back Egor Krimets and the aforementioned Vladimir Kozak, Sergeev is now there, poised to spearhead Uzbek transition for better…
There’s no point in delaying the inevitable
One could easily argue that it’s too soon for them. After all, they’ve just spent the very first summer following their U-20 World Cup adventure. But Samvel Babayan doesn’t seem to be very keen on postponing the excitement.
Hence, three wee lads who travelled to New Zealand in June were included in the provisional 30-name squad for the September qualifiers, while five of their colleagues have been at least called up to the U-23s.
To put it differently, that’s eight members out of 12 who took part in at least 300 minutes of the U-20 World Cup being instantly promoted. Not bad; not bad at all.
Those luckiest three musketeers are the U-20 captain Javokhir Sokhibov (Pakhtakor), versatile defensive midfielder or centre back Odiljon Hamrobekov (Nasaf Qarshi) and the best dribbler on that U-20 team Eldor Shomurodov (Bunyodkor).
Ideally, in my humble opinion, there should also be one d’Artagnan in the mix – or a fourth musketeer if you will. Sadly, the protagonist of this year’s hottest streak in Uzbekistan is absent…
Skilled left-footed winger Dostonbek Khamdamov may have scored seven goals in as many competitive games between July 1 and August 12, but he still had to settle just for a spot in the squad that’s preparing for the U-23 Asian Cup, otherwise known as the Olympic Games qualifiers.
There to accompany him, left back and current Bunyodkor regular Akramjon Komilov, Neftchi defender Doston Tursunov (sometimes awfully skinned at the World Cup), Buxoro central midfielder Otabek Shukurov and since the 2014 U-19 Asian Cup perhaps slightly overhyped striker Zabikhillo Urinboev (still yet to score for Bunyodkor this year) are present in the camp, too.
Now, of course, the question is how much influence on their respective sides these guys can actually have at this stage of their careers. Also, any input of theirs should automatically be taken with a pinch of salt – let it be a positive, or a negative one.
Nevertheless, it’s still legitimate to ask how much we shall get excited about this fresh class. Is it, in fact, stronger than the one built around Iskanderov, Kozak or Sergeev? Probably not.
I’ve asked a local fan, Tolkin Saidov, to help me with the comparison and the only department he would pinpoint as better equipped in 2015 was the attacking line – featuring Urinboev (part of the 2013 squad too!), Khamdamov and Shomurodov; all recently rewarded guys as highlighted above.
The 2013 goalkeeper (Omonov), on the other hand, was in Tolkin’s opinion “much better” than Khamraev, while players in the remaining lines looked at least “slightly better” given the smaller number of individual blackouts (among defenders) and the presence of the unreproducible Iskanderov’s genius.
These comments, for better or worse, can hardly be disputed. But there is still plenty of potential to be identified all across the 2015 side. Besides, Bunyodkor have recently committed to their youth beyond all expectations or precedents, and that’s one great prerequisite for any future success of these boys.
But let’s leave the clubs and their seedbeds for the second part…