Being a football fan from Uzbekistan is not an easy task. When you ask one to recall their best moments in the World Cup qualifiers, he may scratch his head a bit, and then agony will kick in. Uzbekistan are one of the biggest losers of Asian football. They are among the leading nations in the continent, but since the team's first campaign in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, they never reached the main stage. Moreover, they were always close but not strong enough to complete it. Now they are trying to start all over again in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
The continuous Uzbek failures began in the 2002 WC qualifiers with a defeat against the UAE, that led to a bad form in the final rounds and ended by missing the playoffs by one point. In the 2018 qualifiers, they were defeated by China, and an additional late equalizer by Syria led to a finish behind the Syrians by goal difference.
Even when reaching the playoffs, Uzbekistan lacked the necessary luck. In the 2014 qualifiers, they played against Jordan in the Asian playoffs. Jordan was considered a weaker team, but it didn't help the Uzbeks. After a 1-1 away draw, Uzbekistan wanted to do it at home. Anzur Ismailov scored an early goal in the 5th minute, but the absence of luck stroke again, with a Jordanian equalizer, and a penalty shootout that ended in a 9-8 win for Jordan.
However, the biggest miss was in the 2006 qualifiers when Uzbekistan played against Bahrain. In the first match, Uzbekistan won 1-0 at home and felt comfortable. It wasn't enough for them, and they decided to send an appeal against the referee due to one strange incident. After a successful penalty kick, the referee decided to disallow the goal, but he also decided to call for a free-kick against Uzbekistan. FIFA approved their request but also decided that the match would be replayed. Uzbekistan thought that FIFA would award them a 3-0 win, but instead, they had to play the game again. This time, the final result was 1-1. The Bahraini away goal was enough for them to knock out Uzbekistan.
In the 2019 Asian Cup, Uzbekistan had a chance to do something else. They had an impressive group stage and hoped to qualify to the later stages. In the round of 16 they played against Australia, and after a goalless draw, the Uzbeks lost 4-2 in penalties.
Today, they are managed by the experienced Héctor Cúper. After his success in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers campaign as the Egypt national team manager, the veteran Argentine will try to bring another World Cup drought to an end. As the Pharoh's gaffer, he led the nation to its first WC appearance since 1990, after impressively dismantling a group consisting of Ghana, Uganda and Congo. However, the team failed miserably in the tournament itself, posting three losses and an early exit. Throughout his career, Cúper is notorious, perhaps a bit harshly, for "choking" in critical moments and being portrayed as a "loser". This reputation goes back to his many final losses with Valencia and Mallorca, as well as dramatically losing the Scudetto with Inter. It seems that unlucky Uzbekistan appointed one of the unluckiest coaches ever. However, even for these coaches, fortunes can change, just ask Claudio Ranieri.
His squad is mostly based on players from the domestic league, but there are two leading players from abroad: First, experienced midfielder Odil Ahmedov from Shanghai SIPG, one of Uzbekistan's all-time top scorers. The second is Eldor Shomurodov, the only player in the squad to play in Europe, who scored four goals in the 2019 Asian Cup, and has recently won the player of the month award in Russia.
Shomurodov is part of a young generation of players that were part of winning the U-23 Asian Cup in 2018, including the tournament MVP, Odiljon Hamrobekov. "These players already have an important role in the national team," said Cúper in an interview to the AFC website. "As proof of that, seven players from the squad which won the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship were capped before the upcoming match against Palestine."
Uzbekistan should pass the second stage of the qualifiers easily. Their opening match will be away against Palestine, and later they will also play against Yemen, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Even if they wouldn't finish in the first place, they would probably qualify to the next stage as one of the best four runner-ups.
The real mission for Cúper and his players will be in the next round. "Uzbekistan has never been in the World Cup, but we always were a step away from qualifying," he said. "Each time, we lacked something. Now we have changed, and maybe improved the aspects that cost us the previous qualifications."
With Héctor Cúper’s faith in his players and their path, can Uzbekistan finally do it?