Sivan John –
In 1994 Asia was about to be given a massive awakening by the mysterious arrival of Uzbekistan on the football pitch. Hiroshima was rewarded for hosting the 12th edition Asian Games otherwise known as the XII Asiad. Football always had a significant following in those days at the Asiad as most countries tend to send their best players since there was no age restriction (by 2002, it was revamped into an Under-23 competition in line with football at the Olympics).
The early 1990’s was a time of many changes that occurred around the world, whether its cultural, political or geographical. The biggest of them all was the Dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991.
As a result of the fall of the Soviet, Union Uzbekistan became an independent country on September 1 1991. The country was quickly admitted as a member of Olympic Council of Asia and the Asian Football Confederation.
Football has been played in Uzbekistan since the early part of the 20th century, and Uzbek players and clubs have competed at the top level of Soviet football. Before 1991 establishing club teams at the top level of Soviet football was the prime objective, but right after independence, the focus shifted towards developing their national league and putting together a national team.
Things were not that easy, however. The plane crash involving the country’s most famous club Pakhtakor Tashkent in 1979 not only took away the lives of the entire football team but also potentially the first generation of Uzbek coaches that could have helped to develop football in the new country.The club football then took another hit with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the country breaking apart many top players left to play in Russia or Ukraine.
Uzbekistan Faced Some Serious Obstacles
Those barriers meant that football did not take priority in the country right after the fall. The Uzbek national team was not even going to be part of the delegation to Hiroshima. The government and sports ministry was only willing to sponsor events, which promised medals, and football was not among them.
As such the UFF (Uzbekistan Football Federation) had to use the money that was made available for them following the cut—rumored to be just $14,000. With a very tight budget, the UFF opted to send a squad consisting 17 players, a coach, and an assistant coach and a doctor, who also acted as the team masseur.
The national team coach was Rustam Akramov. Many critics felt his appointment was a surprise considering Pakhtakor did poorly in the league under his guidance. The coach was given the job partly because of his overseas experience in Algeria during the 1980s.
His assistant was Berador Abduraimov, the country’s most famous footballer during the Soviet era. Abduraimov scored over 100 over goals for Pakhtakor during the 1960s and 1970s. He was appointed just two months ahead of the game, which underlines the spontaneous aspects of Uzbekistan’s trip to Japan.
Looking back there was a bit of a clash of personalities in the coaching set up considering that Abduraimov was a more well-known figure in Uzbek football circle compared to Akramov, who seemed to resent the star power of his assistant coach. But the two managed to make the arrangement work. Plus, the decision to install Abduraimov as the assistant role was against Akramov’s wishes. Nevertheless, the duo had to conclude on the names of the 17 players squad was going to travel to Hiroshima.
Akramov had to deal with the loss of goalkeeper Pavel Bugalo, who fell sick prior to the tournament. Another notable name missing was the Uzbek’s league top scorer Ravshan Bozorov as issues on a personal level between him and Akramov eventually forced him out of the team.
Also, missing for no particular reason was Gennadi Denisov (father of the current international Vitaliy Denisov) who was playing in Russia for Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz. Though he was 34 at the time, his experience could have been vital for Akramov’s team.
Andrey Pyatnitsky declined the call up for Uzbekistan as he opted to represent Russia and even played for them at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States. Finally, Uzbekistan’s 1992 golden boot winner and footballer of the year Valery Kechinov also changed his allegiance to Russia.
Pakhtakor and Neftchi Formed the Backbone of the Squad
As expected, the backbone of the team was made up of players from the country’s two biggest club, Pakhtakor and Neftchi. Neftchi, the reigning Oliy Liga champions at the time provided the most players: Andrej Federov, Alexandr Tikhonov, Sergej Lebedev, Abdusamat Durmanov, Rustam Durmanov and Stepan Atoyan.
Atoyan inclusion was a surprise as he was struggling with an injury, but the coaches hoped that he would recover during the tournament. Tikhonov too was sidelined twice during that year, but Akramov kept faith in him as he was regarded as a vital member of the squad.
Pakhtakor had a poor league season, but did well in the Asian Club Championship and as a result had five players called up: Yuri Sheikin, Ulugbek Ruzimov, Ilkhom Sharipov, Abdukakhor Marufaliev and Shukhrat Maksudov.
Other local based players that were called up are goalkeeper Berdakh Allanniyazov (Aral Nukus), Favzi Davletov (MHSK) and Farkhod Magometov (Navbakhor).
Only three players out of the 17-member squad that travel to Japan were based overseas. One of them was Berador Abduraimov’s son Azimat Abduraimov—a product of Spartak Moscow’s youth team and was on the books of Malaysian side Pahang FA.
Next was rising star Mirjalol Qosimov, a mercurial playmaker with a gifted left foot and the team’s set piece specialist who was playing for Russian side Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz. Uzbekistan’s very own blonde arrow, striker Igor Shkvyrin, who played for Maccabi Haifa in Israel, was the most recognisable player in the team due to his striking natural hair colour.
Akramov’s starting line up was built around an attacking philosophy compliment by a strong defensive line up. Sheikin was chosen as the first choice goalkeeper. The back-line consisted of four defenders with Davletov on the right and Tikhonov on the left with Magometov and Federov in the central role.
Sharipov was deployed on the right wing with Lebedev on the left. Qosimov in the meantime was the sides strategist in the centre of the park. Up front Durmanov, Shkvyrin and Abduraimov complemented in what was essentially a 4-3-3 system.
For the draw, Uzbekistan were seeded in the fifth and last pot of the draw and were given a hard group together with Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong. The Malaysian press, in particular, was confident that they could progress because they thought that only the Saudis would offer a decent challenge.
Uzbekistan Stunned Saudi Arabia in the First Game
In their first game, the Uzbeks stunned Saudi Arabia with a 4-1 win—creating the first shock of the tournament. After all, Saudi Arabia, which selected a relatively young side for this tournament were considered one of the favourites.
Goals from Lebedev, Qosimov and a brace from Shkvyrin gave the Uzbeks a comfortable four goal lead at half time. Saudi Arabia pulled one back at the very last minute.
The next match was against Malaysia. It was like sending a bunny rabbit to the slaughterhouse. Uzbekistan completely dominated the game and by half time were already three goals up courtesy of Abduraimov, Qosimov and Shkvyrin. They went on to score two more late goals to complete a 5-0 victory with Shkvyrin adding another one to his tally (four goals in two matches) and Maksudov scoring the final goal.
The Uzbeks decided to drop a few gears in their next match against Hong Kong, as Maksudov was brought in place of Shkvyrin. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan went on to secure their place in the knockout stage with a 1-0 win courtesy of Abduraimov.
In their last game against Thailand, a brace each from Qosimov and Maksudov, as well as another goal from Shkvyrin, ensured the Uzbek took a 5-1 lead. The Thais, however, pulled back scoring three goals to make it 5-4 with just two minutes left to play. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan managed to hold on to their lead to top Group B with a 100% winning record.
In the quarter-final, the Uzbeks were paired together with Turkmenistan, runners up from Group A. It did not take them that much of trouble to see off their Central Asian neighbour with Shkvyrin opening the score line in the 14th minute. Six minutes later, Abduraimov doubled the lead from the penalty spot. It was all wrapped up in the 33rd minute with another goal from Shkvyrin, taking his tally to seven goals in five games. The Uzbeks cruised through to the last four with a 3-0 victory.
It was only in the semi-final that fans back home could finally watch their beloved White Wolves. Before this match, many were only given a glimpse of their team progress via daily highlights.
The semi-final was going to be their toughest challenge yet, as they faced either Asian football giant South Korea or the host nation, Japan. The Koreans overcame their Far East rival with a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to a controversial penalty in the 90th minute.
Japan’s loss has somehow worked in Uzbekistan’s favour, however. Eager for revenge, local supporters headed to the Regional Park Stadium to give their support to the Uzbeks.
South Korea brought a strong squad to Hiroshima with nine players from the side that travelled to America for the World Cup. Some of the players included in the squad included Hong Myung-Bo, Hwang Sun-Hong, Seo Jung-Won, Choi Young-Il and Ko Jeong-Woon.
South Korea Provided the Biggest Obstacle
A fierce battle was therefore expected to take place on both ends of the pitch— Shkvyrin and Abduraimov were expecting their biggest test in breaking a Korean defence marshalled by Myung-Bo and Young-Il, who were considered the best centre back pairing in Asia. Uzbekistan’s defenders in the meantime were expecting to deal with Taeguk Warriors deadly duo Sun-Hong and Jung-Won, both were goal scorers at the World Cup.
South Korea were dominant right from the beginning, kept most of the possession and created many chances. The Uzbek’s goalkeeper, Sheikin, however, was in top form, stopping every effort from the Koreans.
Uzbekistan were lucky to hang on to a goalless score at half time, but there was still another 45 minutes of Korean onslaught to be dealt with. Then in the 65th minute, a breakthrough finally happened.
In a rare moment against the Korean’s goal, Abduraimov hit the ball from outside the penalty box, which found its way into the net after taking a deflection. Uzbekistan had taken the lead, and South Korea look stunned!
With almost 25 minutes left to play, South Korea had to regroup and search for an equaliser, but on this night, the Uzbeks back line supported by Ruzimov who was the holding midfielder. In the end, it was another massive upset from Uzbekistan.
Sheikin became the unlikely hero of the night, not bad for someone who was not even going to be the starting goalkeeper in the first place. A few months before the tournament, he performed poorly for the national team after arriving for a friendly in terrible shape following a binge night for celebrating his birthday. But he worked hard and changed Akramov’s mind.
Now, a country that had existed just for two years was one game away from making history at the Asian Games. The only team standing in their way was China who overcame Kuwait 2-1 in the other semi-final.
The Final From Hiroshima
The final was held in the Hiroshima’s Big Arch Stadium. Even though it was not their beloved Blue Samurai playing; there was a huge turnout for this game from the Japanese, many remaining neutral while some cheering for the White Wolves of Central Asia.
Uzbekistan took the lead in the second minute courtesy of who else but Shkvyrin. That goal took his tally to eight goals in seven games. The chant Uzbekistan! Uzbekistan! was beginning to be heard throughout the stadium as the new local favourite side were looking to double their lead.
They did not have to wait long for that either. Shkvyrin fired a turnaround shot from the outside of the box from where the ball hit the cross bar, but Lebedev pounced on the ball tapping in the rebound. Two nil to the Uzbeks and China looked to be in trouble.
China had to regroup and were hoping for a quick recovery. With some patience on their build up, they were rewarded in the 18th minute courtesy of Hu Zhijun. The scoreline stayed 2-1 until half time.
The second half kicked off familiarly with the Uzbeks restoring their two goal lead in the 47th minute when Abduraimov was fouled in the penalty box. He made no mistake from the spot.
But Uzbekistan’s defence allowed China back into the game when Li Bing managed to slot the ball past Sheikin in the 50th minute. Despite some effort from China to get the equaliser, Uzbekistan didn’t look trouble at keeping their slender lead—though on certain occasions China did come close.
But all that ended in the 81st minute when a perfect build up from Abduraimov, Shkvryin and Maksudov allowed the latter to score the fourth goal. With the final score, Uzbekistan made history by taking the gold medal in their first ever major tournament.
There was surprise among the Asian football fraternity following the outcome in the Hiroshima Games. Many admitted that the Uzbeks did not just look like Europeans but also played like them. With the European game still ahead of the game in Asia, they had an edge that they earned while playing as part of the Soviet football pyramid.
As such, this was not just a wake-up call for Asia but also for the likes of Australia and New Zealand as well. A local newspaper in Malaysia at the time stated that Australia and New Zealand should beware as there is a new force on the rise.
The 1994 Generation was not a Stepping Stone for Success
Upon arriving at Tashkent International Airport, there was a huge celebration for the Uzbekistan delegation and the national team was greeted with adulation from the general public. So the next question was of course, when will the world see Uzbekistan at the World Cup?
Though winning gold in Hiroshima was a huge success for Uzbekistan it had also worked against them as well. The football authorities were quick to assume that the current set up was good enough and there was no need to reevaluate, invest in football development or even plan for the future.
Thus, without proper planning, the national team failed to live up to its early expectations for the next ten years. However things have improved over the last decade, but often with every major campaign, Uzbekistan tends to choke at the most crucial stage, thus earning “the most underachieving side” tag in Asia.
The recent arrival of fresh talents have come in and taken Uzbekistan to the Under-20s and Under-17s World Cup. Who knows one day this generation might equal the success of their predecessors from 1994 and maybe even fulfil the prophecy of a World Cup qualification?Until then, it ‘s nice to look back at what the class of 94 achieved despite the many obstacles and acknowledge them as one of football’s many fairy tales.
Many thanks to Alisher Nikimbaev for his sharing his knowledge and insight on Uzbekistan football. Please give him a follow on Twitter.
John Sivan is a writer for the Argentine football blog Mundo Albiceleste. Based in Malaysia his work has featured in These Football Times, In Bed with Maradona and the Premier League Panel. He supports the Los Albiceleste and Huddersfield Town Football Club. Follow John Sivan on Twitter @SivanJohn_