The Resilient Tales of the Uzbek Uprising | AFC Asian Cup 2023 | Match Preview India vs Uzbekistan


As a child, I remember my grandmother once reciting me a Nosiruddin Hojjar Golpo (The Tales of Nasreddin Hodja) about when Nasreddin was riding his iconic donkey while sitting opposite to the convention (facing the back instead of front) and a passerby asks the elderly traveller: “Why are you riding your donkey the wrong way around?” To which the jovial cleric replies: “I am the right way round, it’s my donkey who is facing the wrong direction.” Nasreddin is a folklore legend across multiple culture with a wise and witty character who uses his humor and intelligence to outsmart the rich, the arrogant, and the oppressors, by often playing tricks on the sultans, the viziers, the mullahs, and the merchants, exposing their greed, hypocrisy, and injustice.
While the existence and birthplace of the clever jester is disputed, many countries have claimed to be the birthplace, such as Turkey, the Caucasian countries and Central Asian countries. His stories have spread during the glorious peak of the Silk Route hence is a popular figure in the Middle East, Central Asia and even India. Nasreddin is considered as a part of the Uzbek cultural heritage and identity. He is seen as a symbol of the Uzbek humor, wisdom, and resilience, and is honoured with statues, monuments, and museums in various places in the double land-locked country which has deep historical ties with India.

The Miracle of ’94 (Collected from

It is this mentality of cunningness, resilience and fight or fight attitude of the Uzbeks which got reflected in the 1994 Asian Games. Back then it was not an U23 only affair, rather a prestigious tournament where the strongest 11 was fielded by the teams. Only three years prior, the country of Uzbekistan had officially formed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
With the government prioritising finances on building and organising infrastructure to stabilise a newly formed country, not much funding was provided to the sports teams, and with a shoestring budget, coach Rustam Akramov, his assistant Berador Abduraimov, one of the best players born in that region, a doctor and just 17 players embarked on their journey to Hiroshima in Japan. 
Some other issues faced were a plane crash involving the country’s most famous club Pakhtakor Tashkent in 1979 not only took away the lives of the entire football team then but also potentially the first generation of Uzbek coaches that could have helped to develop football in the new country. With the promise of European club and National level football, many possible Uzbeks refused and switched their services to Russia and Ukraine, hence it was a team literally no one had any hopes from, except that group of 20 people who showed to the whole of Asia what the Uzbek mentality is by laughing past the big names of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Hongkong and Thailand in the group stage where they scored a staggering 15 goals and conceded 5 (4-1, 5-0, 1-0 and 5-4 respectively).
After strolling past their neighbours Turkmenistan in the quarters, they faced the challenge of the mighty South Koreans. The Uzbeks were pushed against the wall by the dominating Koreans, but luck was on the side of the Central Asians, as Korea missed multiple goalscoring chances and a deflected long ranger from Abduraimov ensured a 1-0 win for Uzbekistan.
There was this flow of deep desire to never bow down from the mightiest of opponents through the blood vessels, veins and most importantly, their nerves. After all, their ancestors once upon a time had even stopped Alexander the Great in the famous resistance of Sogdiana and Bactria which forced even the mighty army of Alexander to step back, so what was a football match against the South Koreans! 

An Uzbek starting lineup from the ’94 Asian Games (Collected from

They threw their lives to defend after getting their lead and held on to it to the final whistle. Since Korea had previously defeated the hosts Japan through a controversial penalty, their local disappointment and anger turned to a resounding support for the White Wolves, a symbol of strength, courage and independence in the Uzbek culture and mythology. Thus, at the final with the loud chants of “Uzbekistan! Uzbekistan!” from the Japanese spectators ringing through their years, that just became the added motivation to clinch the Gold by overcoming China 4-2.
It was more than these 7 games, it was an announcement of the new country to the world, that they just might produce something exceptional again, something different from the other countries arising out of the union. The familiarity of the Uzbeks with the European systems, philosophy and training methods, with their genetic gift of a physically adept stature also gave them an edge while playing against Asian teams.
Qualifying for the Asian Cup two years later was a miracle of its own too. After going down 0-4 against Tajikistan in the first leg, they scored 5 goals at home to progress into the group featuring China, Japan and Syria, a certain group of death. Again, they displayed beautiful defensive organisation and quick effective counters late game to win 2-0 over China. However, they couldn’t overcome the Japanese and Chinese and thus failed to progress to the knockouts. In the second round of 98’ qualifiers they yet again failed to move past the likes of South Korea, Japan and UAE.
Finally, after the miracle era, the reality came forward, how actually difficult it is to sustain performances even at the Asian level, the World Cup being a distant dream. The initial success happened to be a double edged sword, as the Government thought their football team was good enough, and didn’t take many proactive measures to set up proper leagues and youth setups following the ’94 miracle, and in the 2000 Asian Cup, the team bowed out of the group stage.
Pieter Huistra, former technical advisor with Uzbek powerhouse Pakhtakor elaborated that “In the beginning, there were other things going on in the country that were more important than football. The system didn’t work so much for a while and it took 10-15 years to start again. There was not enough money or facilities and it is difficult to organise leagues which is always a problem in Asia.”

Uzbekistan vs Bahrain 2005 (Collected from

After failing to qualify through the second round in the ’02 WC Qualifiers, they were eliminated out of the ’04 Asian Cup quarters against Bahrain through a penalty shootout. This wasn’t the only time Bahrain caused an infuriating to the Huma birds as in the 39th minute of the first leg of AFC playoff match in the World Cup Qualifiers (winner to face Trinidad and Tobago for a spot in the ’06 WC), Bahrain was awarded a penalty which they converted, but the goal was denied by the referee due to encroachment. Instead of doing a retake, Bahrain were awarded a free kick, a move which made the Uzbek FA furious and they complained to FIFA, who surprisingly nullified the result of that match which had ended 1-0 in favour of Uzbekistan and declared both legs to be retaken.
However, Bahrain would present an unbreakable defense as the match at Tashkent ended 1-1 while the one at Manama ended 0-0, and Bahrain went through to the final playoff match on away goals advantage, although they lost that match against Trinidad and Tobago. In the coaching duties for that match was Bobby Houghton, a familiar name in Indian football as he managed the Blue Tigers from 2006 to ’11 where they won the Nehru Cup twice, the AFC Challenge Cup and finished second in the ’08 SAFF Championship.
After reaching the fourth round in the ’10 World Cup qualifiers and finishing fourth in the ’11 Asian Cup, there were many hopes from the class of 2014. By then Uzbekistan had started to take the right decisions towards structured football development. In an interview during their ’14 World Cup Qualifying Campaign UFF President Mirabror Usmanov remarked that their “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.”

Supporters of the national team during a qualification match for the 2010 World Cup against Japan at Pakhtakor Stadium in Tashkent (Collected from

However, 2014 turned out to be yet another disappointment. With the mighty South Koreans facing Iran, it was an expected victory for the Koreans but Iran produced their own miracle story that day, winning 1-0 over Korea and progressing to the World Cup through a direct slot, which meant Uzbekistan had to win over Qatar by a margin of 6 goals to qualify directly over South Korea. And the Uzbeks managed to score 5 but couldn’t find the elusive sixth goal as they had to face Jordan in the first playoff, where they were eliminated at sudden death by a rising Jordan team.
Next year, South Korea handed them an extra time quarter final exit in the Asian Cup, and a shock 2-4 defeat to North Korea in their 2018 WC Qualifying Round ended up being the barrier which prevented them to get the third spot, which brings the playoff route. 2019 Asian Cup had another penalty exit in their fate at the hand of the Aussies, while in the 2022 WC qualifiers, they didn’t even get to the final round due to a shock defeat from Palestine.
Also, since North Korea had withdrawn from their group, the other countries their were awarded victories and those extra points gave Lebanon the edge over Uzbekistan who couldn’t find themselves in the list of the 5 best runner ups in the penultimate round groups. Thus, it has been a story of repeated heartbreaks, every Asian Cup, every World Cup qualifier, for the White Wolves after their big entry in ’94.
A part of that has been attributed to the sub par organisation of the National League games which doesn’t offer much competition and gametime, hence the players are not accustomed to the mental aspects of the ‘big’ games, hence are prone to lose focus and are not fine tuned against those quality opponents. However, in the last few years, there have been many promising proceedings, especially in the youth development front.

Juventus FC Academy in Tashkent (Courtesy: Juventus FC Media)

Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country to be a part of the FIFA Football for Schools Programme, another beneficiary of that being Odisha in India. A football academy too was launched in Tashkent to attract the best youth prospects. According to Gazeta, an Uzbek news organisation, The Ministry of Economy and Finance was instructed to allocate annually 25 billion soums from the state budget to support the Fund starting from 2023, which will be used for developing mass and professional football, purchasing modern equipment and facilities and covering the cost of creating a system for training advanced teaching methods and innovations for football specialists, including the incentives for foreign specialists recruited from abroad.
Due to extensive oil and gas reserves, there has been huge funding from companies in that sector, from sponsoring the National League, clubs, lower level and youth level tournament organisation and infrastructure development. Also FIFA had allocated $4.2 million to build four modern football fields in 2022−2023 at Dustlik stadium in Yukorichirchik district of Tashkent region. The extensive focus on the youth has bore fruit in recent years. The players in their development phase are always kept together and most National team players are childhood friends.
The U-20 team won the AFC U-20 Asian Cup in 2023 after qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup four times, reaching the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2015. The Uzbekistan U-16 team won the AFC U-16 Championship in 2012 and reached the final in 2010. They also qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup thrice, in 2011, 2013 and recently in 2023, where they famously defeated England U17 in the Round of 16 2-1 before bowing don to France by a single goal.

Uzbekistan held Spain to a 2-2 in their Group stages of the 2023 U17 World Cup before winning 2-1 over England in the R16 (Courtesy: AFC Media)

Now converting the youth success at the senior level is a different ballgame altogether. They, by now, can be said to be deserving of atleast one World Cup appearance. This is exactly when we look back at the history and the resilient mentality of the Uzbeks, who refuse to give up even against the biggest of names. They don’t go to a match to settle for a point, they might defend, but they have clear plans and tactics to find goals through fast effective counters.
Currently, they are guided by experienced Slovenian Srečko Katanec, who specialises in coaching National teams and has relatively successful stints with Slovenia (twice), Macedonia, UAE and Iraq. He was part of the mighty Sampdoria in the early 90s which won the Serie A and were runners up the ’91-92 European Cup (now UCL). He now lines up the Uzbeks in an interesting 3-4-3 formation.
Their first Asian Cup match ended in a 0-0 draw against the valiant Syrians who held their ground and thwarted all their attacks. In goal starts seasoned Yusupov who plies his trade with Navbahor, the three man defense comprises of Ashurmatov, Eshmuradov and Khusanov (who plays at French club Lens), the double pivot comprises of Shukurov and Khamrobekov supported by wingbacks Sayfiev and Alidzhanov, both playing for Pakhtakor Tashkent. Masharipov and Erkinov occupy somewhat of a deeper wide forward cum winger (occasionally) role, while Urunov completes the front three, a stark departure from their current starman Eldor Shomurodov who plays for Cagliari in the Serie A on loan from Roma and is out due to injury.

Uzbekistan pass map vs Syria (Courtesy: @totalf0otball via X)

It was largely evident how crucial Shomurodov could have been for the team. Out of the 14 shots attempted, the Uzbeks could only keep 2 on target, which were blocked, which means there were zero saves made by the Syrian keeper. Even with a lion’s share of possession (70%) with an even greater field tilt (ration of touches in their attacking third to that of no. of touches by Syria in Uzbek defensive third), they had troubled breaking through the intense pressing and disciplined low block by Syrians whose astute 4-4-2 defensive shape forced Uzbekistan wide where they choked the Uzbek wingbacks, wingers and midfielders from progressing the ball by creating intense overloads (congesting a large no. of players to block passing lanes).

Uzbekistan’s 3-4-2-1 formation build up against a 4-4-2 defensive shape of Syria (Courtesy: AFC Media)

In that match, Syria had a PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action which is the count of how many passes a team allows the opponent before making a defensive action (tackle, interception, foul) in attacking areas (40% of the pitch away from a team's own goal and forwards)) of 33, which means Uzbekistan were quite composed on the ball and have the positional understanding to make themselves available for passes even through stringent presses and overloads. This point should be of utmost importance to India as just like the Australia game, the balls will not be in their favour and they need to continue their top class defensive organisation which they showcased atleast in the first half.

Uzbekistan’s compact defensive shape (Courtesy: AFC Media)

Most of the influential passes happen through Uzbekistan’s double pivot which was rarely pressured by Syria. These two are able to combine with themselves, the touchline hugging wingbacks and the inverting wingers to open up passing channels. They help change the flanks through fast and smart passes, and quite subtly they move up the pitch to draw in the press from midfielders and even defenders in hopes of finding space behind. This is exactly where the overly structured approach of the Uzbeks comes to their disadvantage.
CF Urunov didn’t drop, the movements of the wingbacks were predictable (running by the touchline to send in crosses, not much accurate and threatening mostly), the pivot was way too rooted at one place. Unless the CF dropped, defenders couldn’t be mispositioned for wingers to run into the space for a lobbed or through pass by the midfielders. There was little to no unpredictability from the Uzbeks when it comes to positional interchanges between the wingers and wingers, change of shape to a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 commonly seen in such a system to confuse the opponent. Syria were pretty happy to do the same defensive manoeuvres and start their counters when the opportunity arrived.

Uzbekistan have a bias in attacking from the wings (Coutesy: @AFA_Zone on X)

A lesson for the Indians should be building up from the back with confidence like the Syrians tried to do whenever they got a goal kick and not launching it forward which most obviously will fall back to the Uzbeks due to their physicality. There’s also a bias to attack from the left, which means it will be a difficult job for the right back, whoever starts be it Poojary or Kotal (nothing is surprising after the Aussie lineup), and the right defensive midfielder and also the right wingers who tracks back with the Uzbek wing back. 

Uzbekistan, who prefer to utilise the wings, were troubled by the overloads of Syria near the touchline (Courtesy: AFC Media)

Compared to the Aussies, the Uzbeks are lot less agile and ‘cheeky’ when it comes to the swiftness of movements. They are not the best dribblers and believe more in numerical dominance to construct triangles to send the ball towards the wings. It will be a very difficult challenge indeed for team India, but it is a do-or-die, and proper positional understanding, effective coverage, and utilising the pace of wingers to launch counters in numbers will have to be the way to break the Uzbeks, who are also prone to occasional casualness and fumbling, so the pressing must never stop.

Predicted lineups :

Probable XI : India

Probable XI : Uzbekistan

General Timur who once had capitalised on the weakened Delhi Sultanate and ransacked the city of Delhi to ruins was born in modern day in Uzbekistan. While most of the civilised world by now has considerably moved on from such violent wars, sport has become an important tool of diplomacy and displays of technical and tactical prowess, football being the most popular of them all.
In the 6 meetings between Uzbekistan and India, all between 1998 and 2001, Uzbekistan has won 5, 3 friendlies, 1 Asian Games group match and 1 Asian Cup group match, while their first ever encounter had ended in a 0-0 draw. After 23 years, the White Wolves face the Blue Tigers in a match which will decide which of the two teams will move forward into the next rounds of this Asian Cup.

Match : India vs Uzbekistan

Kick OFF : 18th Jan'24, 20:00 IST
Live Stream : Sports 18 & Jio Cinema
Venue : Ahmed Bin Ali (Al-Rayyan) Stadium, Qatar

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