On Sunday, Tom Danicek looked back at the recent U-20 World Cup and highlighted some of Uzbekistan’s most outstanding prospects. Today, we drill deeper down past the surface, digging for the foundations on which all future achievements of the White Wolves are supposed to be built upon…
As you may recall, dear reader, in the first part I talked about how greater roles for some Pakhtakor youngsters are to be expected with the new national team head coach in place.
Egor Krimets at centre back, Vladimir Kozak in central midfield, the already distinguished stars of Iskanderov and Sergeev… all should see more playing time in the near future.
This situation – when Pakhtakor prospects are being tipped for great things en masse – is nothing out of the ordinary. The list of notable players starting up their shiny careers with the ten-time champions is, after all, seemingly endless.
Among those active players, Server Djeparov, Odil Akhmedov, Aleksandar Geynrikh, Sanzhar Tursunov and Vitaliy Denisov all engaged within Pakhtakor’s youth ranks at some point in their careers.
Then you have Valeriy Kechinov, Mirjalol Qosimov, Ulugbek Ruzimov and Andrey Akopyants – to name just a few retired veterans from the 1990s or 2000s.
And finally, we could – and should – go even deeper into the history books; to visit the first truly great Pakhtakor side…
In the name of Pakhtakor ’79
In the 1970s, Pakhtakor were slowly becoming a hit in the Soviet Union. Inspired indirectly by the great mind of Valeriy Lobanovskiy, even the Tashkent side had started to utilize attacking formation with three forwards – and to fine success indeed.
In 1974, Pakhtakor finished 8th in the top Soviet league, faring better than CSKA Moscow or Shakhtar Donetsk; an achievement they are still very much proud of in the Uzbekistan capital. Especially the front trio of Fyodorov-Hatzipanagis-An was flourishing back then.
Only two years later, Vladimir Fyodorov went to the Olympic Games; sharing the Soviet dressing room with a guy called Oleh Blokhin as a fresh 20-year-old. At the same time, only slightly older Mikhail An, an intelligent all-rounder of Korean descent, captained the golden U-23 Soviet side at the European Championship.
That year, in 1976, both immensely talented Tashkent graduates were granted the Master of Sports International Class title; a wonderful tribute to their exceptional skills. In other words, they’ve become Pakhtakor icons way before their supposed peaks. Hell, Fyodorov would even refuse Dinamo Kiev a couple of times to further strengthen his stature.
Sadly, on 11 August 1979, something inexplicable happened. Two planes collided mid-air; one of them carrying almost the entire Pakhtakor team. Mikhail An (26) was aboard, and so was Vladimir Fyodorov (23). Another member on the flight – Sirozhiddin Bazarov, an 18-year-old – was promoted at the last minute.
For the three following seasons, it was technically impossible for Pakhtakor to get relegated. Along with this arrangement, the league directors also ordered all top flight clubs to make three of their players available and help to create a new Pakhtakor.
Consequently, Pakhtakor have managed to rehabilitate in an admirable fashion as a football team. Only three years after the crash, Andrei Yakubik became their most prolific goalscorer in the Soviet era, while his 23 strikes catapulted the Tashkent boys to an all-time high 6th position.
As a football club, however, Pakhtakor has never fully healed.
A book was written, a documentary was made, a memorial was built, a commemorative team was created, a song was recorded. It’s impossible to forget and no one is actually trying to do so, which is totally understandable.
Probably the most important form of homage paid to those who lost their lives in 1979, then, is delivered annually by a humble youth tournament, held every August in order to showcase the brightest U-15 talents Pakhtakor, Bunyodkor, Lokomotiv or Neftchi academies have to offer…
Why is it so important, you ask? Well, mainly due to the very fact all these clubs are running their own academies per se. Now it’s almost half of the Oliy Liga with such institutions in place – with many of them opened in the last three, four years according to my consultant Tolkin Saidov.
“Before these academies, we had only Olympic colleges and some sport oriented schools in regions where pupils could learn football among many other sport types,” he explains. Indeed, even relatively young players like Vitaliy Denisov or Odil Akhmedov obtained their first football education in ‘Sports School Pakhtakor’ – i.e. no specialized institution.
The first proper Tashkent youth academy was established in 2002 by Pakhtakor. One other had already been functioning in a small city called Muborak, serving to the local side Mashal. The two remaining big Tashkent clubs, Bunyodkor and Lokomotiv, followed suit in 2007 and 2012 respectively.
The Pakhtakor academy is run by an Englishman and, as another local Khumoyun Mamatov puts it, the whole establishment very much remains fixed onto the Soviet ideals. The playing techniques kids are being taught from day one may now seem obsolete when compared to the present standard.
The Bunyodkor academy, on the other hand, took a leaf out of the book written by a contemporary master. From the very beginning of their organization, the Swallows have been associated with Barcelona, whose ex-president Joan Laporta granted a green light to the construction of their new stadium. Bunyodkor even copy the shape of Barça’s crest.
Finally, there’s Lokomotiv with their own toddler of an academy. “Their club policy is criticized a lot sometimes. It looks like their owner, Uzbek Railways, are doing everything just for advertising. They’ve bought all (the) famous players from PFL, but (with) no connections, no understanding is there,” says Khumoyun, alluding to the long-serving internationals such as Kapadze, Mulladjanov and J. O. Hasanov.
“All academies have selection processes each year. There are no tuition fees. Accommodation and food are also for free. (They are) strongly supported by sponsors and government. Unlike Olympic colleges or football schools, many coaches in academies are retired professional footballers,” Tolkin Saidov eventually draws some similarities between the aforementioned institutions.
Their scouting networks are expanding too: Lokomotiv’s general director was recently bragging about his club having its own ‘branch’ in almost all regions of the country and virtually the same goes for Pakhtakor, whose following selection process seems rather intricate. Out of 2,000 children, just one might get handpicked for the academy; coach Babayan once admitted at a presser.
As you can see, the top Uzbek clubs are now elite organizations through and through, so they can’t ignore all those fancy youth tournaments either. Pakhtakor regularly send their prospects to the enormously prestigious Coppa Carnevale in Italy and Bunyodkor, for a change, participated at this year’s Lukoil Children’s Champions Cup in Turkey.
On a more negative note, what these elite clubs also like to do is to poach some outstanding talents every now and then. Although to be fair, this is mainly the specialty of those younger Tashkent brands, Bunyodkor and Lokomotiv, who may not need to act like this with added time and experience under their belt.
Either way, in the preliminary 30-man squad for the upcoming World Cup / Asian Cup qualifiers, Pakhtakor have as many as five products of their own; like genuine ones. On the other hand, all six Lokomotiv representatives already arrived to the club as pros…
Bunyodkor taking the centre stage
Bunyodkor is a peculiar case, especially when it comes to their approach to youth.
On one hand, you have a club best known for an (unsuccessful) pursuing of Samuel Eto’o and an incredible unbeaten run of 2009, inspired by the foreign tandem of Rivaldo-Villanueva and Brazilian head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
On the other hand, though, you also have a club whose recruits constituted a great deal of valuable members of that U-20 side recently travelling to New Zealand.
That’s indeed a major step up, albeit watered down by the fact that Bunyodkor have, for instance, stolen two great youngsters Eldor Shomurodov & Otabek Shukurov from Mashal earlier this year.
Nevertheless, this turn in Bunyodkor’s thinking – meaning Pakhtakor was no longer the dominant supplier on that age level – led me to some thorough investigation.
While the U-20 captain once again derived his origins from Pakhtakor, which quite impressively happened to be the case with all four World Cup squads (Javokhir Sokhibov followed in the footsteps of Yaroslav Krushelnitskiy, Sherzod Karimov and Vladimir Kozak), there was still something noticeably different about this 2015 side.
But how significant a change was it? Well, just look here…
Now, a few notes to accompany the table above:
- You could first ask why I even bothered to include Mashal. Firstly, because it has great tradition and so it’s by all means worth a mention – if only an honorable one. Secondly, because plenty of action occurs in the background. And Mashal still deserve recognition for their upbringing of Shomurodov & Shukurov, the starting goalkeeper at the 2009 U-20 World Cup, or four players behind the first U-17 WC appearance in 2011.
- Fïve Bunyodkor players took part in all 2015 U-20 World Cup games they were available for; four of them weren’t even benched. More impressively, as many as eight Pakhtakor youngsters took part in all 2013 U-20 World Cup games they were available for; doubling the club’s numbers from 2009 and 2003.
- This year, two out of seven Pakhtakor representatives went to New Zealand only for a pleasant trip, to see no football action whatsoever, hence in reality, the Bunyodkor hegemony was even stronger. However, the same has happened to Bunyodkor too: in 2009, both of their (very first) representatives proved to be of no use at all.
- On the face of it, Lokomotiv doesn’t look like a particularly reliable contributor to U-20 sides, but make no mistake – their two regulars from 2013 appeared to be pretty vital to the team. It was no coincidence that both Lokomotiv defenders, Sardor Rakhmanov and Boburbek Yuldashov, sat out that devastating quarter-final v France (0:4) due to suspension.
- The year 2009 clearly was the weakest as far as the whole breed goes. Only Islom Tukhtahujaev (Neftchi) has managed to cut it on the biggest scene, while another two high-profile youngsters were brought up by two rather obscure clubs (Jasur Hasanov by Buxoro, Ivan Nagaev by Bekabad).
- Pakhtakor’s class of 2003 was absolutely brilliant. Out of six members, only Bakhriddin Vakhobov is yet to win a single cap and even that could be fixed in the near future, as the 32-year-old is currently leading all PFL goalscorers. Besides, you should credit Pakhtakor for Aleksandar Geynrikh as well, since he’d left Tashkent for CSKA Moscow just before the tournament.
Leaving the Stone Age behind
Without the slightest doubt, this has been one miserable season for Uzbek clubs on the international scene.
For the first time since 2007, no Oliy Liga representative progressed from the AFC Champions League group stages, even though the all-time highest number of Uzbek clubs (four) had managed to squeeze in.
For a Bunyodkor fan, it was a particularly and indeed historically terrible experience. The Swallows had taken part in seven ACL group stages before this season – and never did they finish with less than eight points. In 2015, they needed to settle for a poor one. Outright humiliating.
However, there are still some mitigating circumstances to these shortcomings.
Firstly, Iskanderov’s absence in the last two key games would’ve had fatal influence on even a better side than Pakhtakor, that’s for sure. He’s the mind of the team without any sort of exaggeration.
Secondly, Bunyodkor have decided to commit to youth the way they never had before. Five 20-year-old or younger prospects saw some significant amount of playing time in this year’s competition, while Sardor Rashidov and Minori Sato – the two most involved outfield players – are 24 and only in their second full top flight season on the continent.
Inexperience, especially in the attacking department (Bunyodkor lost four consecutive matches 0:1!), was clearly the deciding factor there.
Inspired by this shallow observation, I went on to sacrifice one of my long nights and look into this issue on a larger scale. Is this a thing in Uzbekistan as a whole? Is the league – and its best teams in particular – getting generally younger, or am I being fooled by one deviation?
To find answers for these intriguing questions, I decided to analyze the development of the four best sides in the country. How did I pinpoint them? It was, in fact, a surprisingly smooth process.
Since 2012 and Lokomotiv’s return to the top flight, the league’s peloton has consisted of four clubs and four clubs only, with the two Tashkent giants – Pakhtakor (2012, 2014) and Bunyodkor (2013) – being responsible for all three title-winning campaigns seen over the interval.
Another club from the capital, Lokomotiv, and recently revitalized Nasaf from a southern city called Qarshi (sixth largest in Uzbekistan) accompany them at all time. Even at this very moment, despite the initial struggles of Bunyodkor, the ‘Big Four’ sits together atop.
Now, while I have to admit I expected slightly more emphatic results, it’s still quite clear that Oliy Liga really is getting younger, or perhaps getting rid of its dinosaurs…
As you can see, between 2012 and 2013, as many as 12 ‘worst’ scores per side (coloured red) were registered, whereas in the two following seasons we identify only four of those. Moreover, three of them are attributed to Pakhtakor, who are generally obsessed with youth.
Three U-23 top scorers, bar one column all age averages below 25 years, 2014 champions with the youngest squad around… I mean, do I have to continue? After all, their own oldest squad within the interval still translates into the youngest one within the context of top 2015 sides.
When I put averages for all clubs together, the year 2012 is ranked worst in all four categories, which is pretty telling. On the contrary, the undisputed peak arrived in 2014, with only one ‘worst’ recorded (in the least significant column, I’d say) and two teams counting on their youngest local core in the four-year span.
Notably, both Nasaf (2012/13) and Bunyodkor (2013/14) have at one point experienced a drop in their locals’ age average equaling exactly one year, which may seem to be a small difference, but it’s rather the exact opposite. What’s most interesting, though, is the curious dissimilarity in outcomes.
By axing four old-ish foreigners and holding onto their permanent top scorer Geworkyan alone, Nasaf actually achieved a better position and mustered more points, whereas Bunyodkor’s 2014 points total makes for their all-time low.
In any case, these sudden drops – as well as Lokomotiv’s gentle transformation begun in 2013 – are clear testaments to the changing environment in Uzbekistan.
While 30-somethings were still swallowing a great deal of responsibility in 2012 (as highlighted in Age-TS and Age-TA columns), nowadays you see three ambitious clubs relying on goal getters younger than 25 years old; creating a completely unseen phenomenon in its own.
And those numbers are, mind you, related purely to somewhat valuable members of their respective A-teams.
Otherwise, Bunyodkor have promoted so many youngsters recently, only to let them practice with more experienced individuals and quietly learning off the field so far. Through that, the core with 5+ starts has been cut from 27 different players in 2014 (!) to 18 this year.
So yeah, the Uzbek ‘Big Four’ seems to be headed in the right direction. And at the minute all academies reach the point when they’re mature enough to be fairly judged, we could well be looking at a league creating some ideal breeding ground for a perspective national team…