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Uzbek football tastes success
In Uzbek football's centennial year, the Uzbekistan Football Federation won FIFA's Fair Play Award, and the national team's coach, Mirdzhalol Kasymov, and referee Ravshan Irmatov were rated among the world's top 15 in their fields.
By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT – Uzbek football fans had plenty to cheer about in 2012.
Honours have flowed to the national and club teams, a home-grown referee with an international reputation and the national team's coach in the sport's 100th anniversary on Uzbek soil.
"It can be stated with conviction that the Uzbekistan Football Federation [UFF] is today the most prestigious of all the Central Asian federations," Valery Samarsky, a columnist with Sport, an Uzbek newspaper, told Central Asia Online. "And this is no accident. After all, Uzbek football has long-standing traditions."
"The centenary of the first appearance of the game on our soil was in 2012," Samarsky explained. "It began to spread in Kokand and Fergana in 1912 – that was where the first teams appeared. And only 16 years later, in 1928, the [Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic] formed the first 'national' team."
Among its main achievements last year, the UFF earned FIFA's "Fair Play" award for clean and honest play. The UFF beat out the Guatemalan Football Association and Eskişehirspor, a Turkish team, for the honour.
FIFA based the award on a point-rating system. In 2012, the UFF racked up 498.84 points in winning the AFC Fair Play Association of the Year Award en route to taking the FIFA prize. The system rewarded competitors for fair and honest play, respect for officials and other athletes, and their fans' behaviour. Only a few other national football federations have won the FIFA award, including those from Japan, Armenia, Turkey, Brazil, Zambia, Belgium and Spain, Samarsky said.
The UFF, en route to winning the FIFA award, won the AFC prize for "the fair play displayed by Uzbek national teams and club sides participating in AFC competitions," FIFA said in a statement.
"In recent years, we have put a lot of effort into Uzbek football and its development, and now we are seeing the results," said UFF President Mirabror Usmanov. "Our first and most important strategic decision was to develop football for youth and young adults and the sport's infrastructure. Youth are the future of our football. We built stadiums, football academies and schools and reformed team training and the national championship. Now, we can clearly see that we are moving in the right direction."
"The results of working with youth are clearly seen in international competitions," Usmanov added. "In 2012 the youth football team won the [AFC U-16 championship]. This is the first major achievement of Uzbekistan's teams since the Asian Games of 1994. This year the juniors will be going to the [FIFA U-17 World Cup] in the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the national team is seeking to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil."
Coach and referee also earn recognition
National team coach Mirdzhalol Kasymov and referee Ravshan Irmatov also achieved international success. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) rated Irmatov the best Asian referee of the last quarter-century – 1987-2011. Among the world's referees, he ranked sixth in 2012.
For four years ¬– from 2008 through 2011 – the AFC recognised Irmatov as its best referee, UFF spokesman Nodir Turdikulov told Central Asia Online. In 2010, he became the first Uzbek to referee an opening match in a World Cup, when the host country, South Africa, played Mexico. After the 2010 World Cup, he received the Pride of Uzbekistan award.
The IFFHS ranked Kasymov, who took charge of the Uzbek national team in June, as the 14th best national-team coach in the world in 2012.
"When I was invited to take charge of the Uzbek team, it wasn't in the best shape," Kasymov told Central Asia Online. "But I accepted this opportunity as an honour. We tried to inspire each footballer on the team – to make him feel that we could win. Now we have the first chance in our history to reach the World Cup."
"We know that we can expect tough battles and difficult matches, but we are prepared to win," he added.
The team has climbed the rankings since Kasymov took over. In 2012, it averaged 67th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings. As of February, it ranked 57th. Uzbekistan ranks as the AFC's fourth-best team, behind Japan, South Korea and Australia.