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Uzbek football looks for a brighter future
New coach, federation president give fans hope for World Cup bid
By Shakar Saadi
TASHKENT – Many Uzbekistani football fans felt ecstatic watching Ravshan Irmatov handle five World Cup matches this year.
Now, they hope Uzbekistan’s national team can soon follow him and play in the world’s most celebrated sports tournament next time.
“We are proud Ravshan Irmatov is our countryman,” said Abdurakhmon Fozilov, leader of the Uzbekistan team fan club. “Thanks to him, people the world over heard about this country. … But I wish our team had gone (to South Africa) to vie for the World Cup.”
The Uzbekistani team has played in four World Cup selection tournaments, each time coming up short of qualifying In the 2005 playoff against Bahrain, the referee did not allow a penalty re-kick so the game was a draw. The Football Federation of Uzbekistan (FFU) challenged the match’s results. FIFA annulled the match and ordered a playoff that Uzbekistan lost, although it was a tie score, too.
Last year, FFU President Zakirshon Almatov resigned. His replacement, Senator Mirabror Usmanov, got down to work immediately, spending long hours at the FFU office.
“Usmanov’s appointment not only improved the FFU structure but also brought the Federation to a new level of efficiency,” FC Neftchi technical director Ruslan Khudaidatov said. “(Previously), the FFU had mainly relied for support on the member clubs’ annual fees. ... Under Usmanov, a football support fund was established as the chief source of project financing.”
New leader, new projects
Usmanov has overseen various projects, a significant one being the reconstruction of the Republican School of Football Mastery.
“The school’s reconstruction cost over US $4m,” said Football Support Fund director Dzhakhongir Makhmudov. “Taking over as the FFU chief, Usmanov focused all his efforts on one specific goal: to have the national team qualify for the World Cup.”
That required selecting a new coach and training the team properly. While his predecessor had largely counted on foreign coaches, Usmanov picked Uzbekistan's Rauf Inileyev in 2007. Even when Inileyev was fired and Brazilian-born Zico was emerging as an alternative, Usmanov appointed Mirdzhalol Kasymov the new coach in September 2008.
By that time, two rounds of selection finals had taken place, and Uzbekistan had lost both matches (to Qatar 0-3 and Australia 0-1), dropping its Cup qualification chances almost to nil.
“We are not pressing for Kasymov to secure our World Cup participation at any cost,” Usmanov said in introducing Kasymov to reporters. “We don’t want to go all the way there only to be kicked out right after the group stage.”
Kasymov, a young and ambitious coach, hit the ground running, coaching Uzbekistan to a draw against Japan and a victory over the UAE. But the momentum didn't last. Bahrain, Australia, Japan beat Uzbekistan, dooming the team to wait another four years.
“Our team lacked unity in the last few matches,” player Alexander Geinrikh said. “Probably, Kasymov also lacked experience. We had a chance but lost it.”
Geinrikh sees the disappointment as a good lesson for the future, when some young talent will be peaking.
Going outside country draws attention
Uzbekistan’s club football scene is also drawing world attention, thanks to some big paychecks that Tashkent-based FC Bunyodkor signed. It hired Brazilian-born Rivaldo, even though he was 36.
Bunyodkor also looked to Brazil to fill its coaching vacancy. Zico headed the team for six months before his compatriot, Luis Felipe Scolari — coach of the 2002 World Cup champion team — came aboard in June 2009. Scolari reportedly earned US $18m for taking the helm.
“We don’t know how much Scolari or Rivaldo actually earns (or earned),” said a Bunyodkor staffer who requested anonymity. “The bulk of the payments come from (the Swiss-registered conglomerate) Zeromax — most likely, as transfers from Swiss bank accounts.”
Scolari left Bunyodkor in May as Zeromax financial troubles reportedly affected Bunyodkor's bottom line. Kasymov took his place.
Many Uzbekistani football observers say Bunyodkor could have spent its money more wisely. "That money would have been better spent on developing children's football than on Rivaldo ... and Scolari," said Viacheslav Solokho, a trainer and consultant at the Centre for Combined Teams. "Uzbekistan doesn't have enough high-class players. ... Directing money to develop children's football could change the situation."
However, having a team finance a football federation's operations can present a conflict of interest. Sardor Rakhmatullayev, FFU general secretary, said the FFU will allocate 4 billion UZS (US $2.5m) to modernise the 13 football schools, while the Children’s Sports Development Fund will contribute another 4 billion UZS (US $2.5m) for that purpose.
Asian competitions open up promising prospects, too. Tashkent hosted the world futsal championship in 2006 and the Asian youth football championship in 2008. It will host both again this year.
“Two Asian championships in Tashkent during one year is a great honour not only for the FFU but also for national sports as a whole,” Rakhmatullayev said. “This means our infrastructure – both in football and in related sports – not only meets the Asian Football Confederation requirements but is one of the best on the continent.”