Uzbekistan close on fulfilling World Cup ambition
By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - After flirting with becoming an Asian football power for much of the quarter of a century since independence, Uzbekistan could finally clinch a place at the sport's top table over the next two weeks.
Although their path is still by no means straightforward, victories in their remaining qualifiers against China and South Korea would secure the landlocked Central Asian nation of 30 million people a maiden appearance at the World Cup finals.
A place in December's draw in Moscow would be particularly poignant for a country that only emerged from the disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991 and where Russian is still widely spoken.
Uzbekistan are currently in third place in Group A of Asia's third round of qualifying, a point behind second placed South Korea and a further seven behind already qualified Iran.
A win over the Chinese in Wuhan on Thursday evening would set up an epic, winner-takes-all clash against South Korea in Tashkent on Sept. 5.
"If we win two matches we will qualify for the World Cup in Russia," coach Samvel Babayan said recently.
"We will try to play good football and achieve victory against China and Korea. That will be our aim.
"We still have a chance to qualify for the World Cup, the chance is still there."
Failure to secure one of the two automatic berths from Group A would almost certainly mean third place and a potential ticket to Russia via two playoffs, a hazardous journey that will awake some painful memories for Uzbeki fans.
In 2006 World Cup qualifying, Uzbekistan faced Bahrain in the continental playoff and were leading 1-0 in Tashkent when they were awarded a penalty, which Server Djeparov converted.
However, the referee disallowed the goal after ruling another Uzbek player had encroached into the penalty area, and while he should have ordered the penalty to be retaken mistakenly awarded Bahrain a free kick instead.
After the game finished 1-0, Uzbekistan appealed to FIFA asking to be awarded a 3-0 win.
Instead, however, world soccer's governing body ordered the match to be replayed and after holding the Uzbeks to a 1-1 draw in the replayed match, Bahrain advanced following a goalless draw in Manama.
Uzbekistan again got through to the continental playoff in 2013 but it was Jordan who marched on to play Uruguay for a spot in Brazil after prevailing 9-8 in a penalty shootout when both legs finished 1-1.
The country's record of close misses has been a source of frustration for Uzbeki football fans, who might have expected better after they won the gold medal at the 1994 Asian Games soon after they joined the international fray.
That has left the fans restricted to celebrating near-misses, individual successes and solid performances in age group competitions.
Uzbekistan reached the semi-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, the best showing by any of the former Soviet republics - Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) - at continental level.
Djeparov, who at 34 remains the creative fulcrum of the national team, has twice being named AFC Player of the Year, while Ravshan Irmatov has long been considered Asia's leading referee.
Uzbekistan's youth teams, meanwhile, have appeared at three of the last five FIFA under-20 World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals in 2013 and 2015.
Over the next two weeks, however, the senior national team could finally put Uzbekistan firmly on the world map in the country's favourite sport.
That the United States, who have qualified for the last seven World Cup finals, could yet stand in the path to Russia of whichever Asian team gets through the continental playoff makes automatic qualification all the more attractive.
Babayan needed no reminding of that and is taking a highly pragmatic approach to achieving it.
"You have to win in World Cup qualifying games and claiming three points is the most important thing," he said.
"Shots, tactical style and other things sometimes are secondary. You just need to win.
"When you play for your country you don't need additional motivation. There are lots of good players in our squad and we have to use them in the games. I have trust in my players."
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Nick Mulvenney)