It’s a hard and long road to Germany 2006 and they don’t come much rockier than the paths from the inhospitable terrain of Central Asia.
Uzbekistan are aiming to become the region’s first ever representative at football’s showpiece event but despite lying bottom and winless at the bottom of Group A in the final stage of Asian World Cup qualifying with only one game remaining, the dream is not dead.
An automatic qualification place is out of reach but if the former Soviet Republic defeats Kuwait in Tashkent on August 17, third-place and a play-off with Bahrain awaits.
A victory over Bahrain, the third-placed team from Group B, will earn Bobby Houghton and his new charges another two-legged showdown with the fourth team from the CONCAFAF region with a place in Germany at stake.
The form of the team has been a surprise as many felt that an automatic qualification spot was well within the reach of the 1994 Asian Games medalists. That prize is the only one so far in the nation’s short football history but it didn’t herald a new dawn for Central Asia.
Failure to qualify for the 1998 and 2002 World Cup resulted in Uzbekistan moving away for the centre of Asia’s footballing radar but good performances in the 2004 Asian Cup and the first stage of the Asian World Cup Qualifiers in the same year suggested that the nation of 27 million people may be ready to challenge the top tier of the continent’s football powers.
Finishing the group stage of the regional competition in China last July in top spot was impressive enough but winning all three games against Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Iraq without conceding a goal, sent a message to the rest of the continent that Uzbekistan was back.
A narrow bitcoin dice defeat in the quarter-final against Bahrain was disappointing but the emergence of young striker Alexander Geynrikh to play alongside established stars such as midfielder and captain Mirdjalal Kasimov and Dinamo Kiev striker Maksim Shatskikh promised a bright future.
The first stage of World Cup qualifying was negotiated smoothly so hopes were high that the Uzbekis could finish in one of the two automatic qualifying places in a group that contained Korea Republic, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had finished bottom of the group during the Asian Cup, and despite finishing the first stage of qualifying with a perfect record, seemed to be a fading force; Kuwait had eliminated China during the previous round of qualifying but held few fears for the Central Asians and the form of favourites Korean Republic had been erratic ever since the World Cup.
The man that had taken them to the last eight of the Asian Cup and Asian qualifying for the World Cup, Ravshan Haydarov was ‘moved upstairs’ before the commencement of the the campaign and replaced by Jurgen Gede who was entrusted with the job of finishing in the top half of the group.
The opening game provided a perfect opportunity to take command of Group A as the Saudis visited a chilly Tashkent in February. However the game was a disappointing one and it took an injury-time equaliser from Anvarjon Soliev to grab a point for the hosts but the real blow came in the second game, a 2-1 defeat in Kuwait.
Crashing to bottom of the group wasn’t the best way to prepare for the tricky trip to Seoul five days later. The hosts outplayed their Central Asian visitors and the only consolation was the fact that the scoreline was only 2-1 as well as the impressive performance of the blossoming Geynrikh. That defeat on March 30 cost Gede his chance to lead the team out onto the pitch in his homeland next summer as he was sacked after just three games in charge.
Haydarov returned to take over for the next three matches and the change seemed to spur the players into life in the return match with Korea in the Uzbeki capital. However, a last minute equaliser from Park Chu-young snatched two points from the hosts and left them still rooted to bottom with time running out.Things went from bad to worse five days later in Riyadh with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat.
The Uzbekistan FA hadn’t quite given up the ghost and a month before the vital game with Kuwait, relieved Haydarov of his duties and appointed the experienced Englishman Bobby Houghton to prepare the team for the vital Tashkent clash.
The former coach of China will be a hero if he takes the country to the World Cup but he will have much work to do to ensure that any visit to Germany is not a short and painful one.