Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, the national side has failed to qualify for a single World Cup. Success at the Asian Games and club sides winning Asian titles on the continent still hasn’t been enough for the White Wolves to appear on the global stage. Here’s how they’ve managed to be within touching distance on multiple occasions and still not make it.
Uzbekistan’s first attempt at qualifying came fresh off a surprising win at the Asian Games (Asia’s version of the Olympics) in 1994. The Uzbek’s weren’t favourites at all for this competition. With some of the best Uzbek players moving to play for either Russia or Ukraine and a plane crash involving one of Uzbekistan’s most successful sides Pakhtakor Tashkent happening 15 years earlier, the squad was mainly made up of amateur players.
Therefore it was a large shock when former Pakhtakor manager, Rustam Akramov led the young nation to victory at the games. Big wins against Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China had shocked Asian football, with many plaudits tipping the side as the next big thing in Asia.
However, a difficult qualifying group for France 98’ that included Japan and South Korea and a group stage exit at the Asian Cup two years earlier, meant that it would be a while until Uzbekistan could really make a name for themselves.
2002 provided a massive opportunity though. With the World Cup being hosted in South Korea and Japan, two of Asia’s biggest sides had automatically qualified. Back when FIFA only gave the AFC two qualifying spots, this opened the door up for sides like Uzbekistan to have a real chance of making it to their first ever finals since independence.
After making it through the first group stage with ease against sides like Turkmenistan and Jordan, Uzbekistan had made it to the last group stage of qualification.
China, U.A.E., Qatar, and Oman would be Uzbekistan’s opponents in a group that was realistic for them to qualify from. Top spot in the group would guarantee qualification, whereas second would mean a play-off against second place from the other AFC group and then an inter-confederation play-off against a side from Europe.
Yet a difficult start in Abu Dhabi in Uzbekistan’s opening game made qualification much harder than it should have been. A 4-1 defeat meant that because of the tight nature of the group with five teams in, goal difference would be a preceding factor in the outcome.
Luckily for Uzbekistan, their next two matches would be against Qatar and Oman who were comfortably the worst two sides in the group. A 2-1 win over Qatar and 5-0 thrashing of Oman in Tashkent, managed to put Uzbekistan back in with a chance of qualifying.
But a tough away game to China would, unfortunately, end the White Wolves’ chances of qualifying automatically. Two goals in the second half without reply from Uzbekistan had put China on 10 points after four games, making it very hard for anyone to catch them at the top of the group.
Uzbekistan were still in contention for a playoff spot though and sat in second place at the halfway point in the group. Qatar had managed to get a win in Abu Dhabi and so the result didn’t rule the Uzbek’s out from a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the U.A.E would be Uzbekistan’s next game in the group and if they were to lose that then they would drop down to third. Mohamed Omar’s only goal of the game on five minutes sealed Uzbekistan’s fate and they had tumbled down the group after a resilient performance from the U.A.E had blocked any chance of a comeback.
A win away to lowly Qatar in Doha was needed to push Uzbekistan back into second with three games to play. With the UAE losing to China the day before, the Uzbek’s had a good chance to go back into second.
And, that looked like the case when Uzbekistan went 2-1 up in the second half, but a late equaliser from Ahmed Khalifa in the 89th minute gave Qatar a point and kept the U.A.E in second with two games left to play.
Uzbekistan had the harder of the run-ins compared to the U.A.E. Both teams had to play bottom side Oman whereas Uzbekistan had to play China on the last day and the U.A.E had to play Qatar earlier in the month and Oman on the last day.
The frustrating thing was for Uzbekistan, they had no problems in beating China on the last day but a 4-2 defeat away to bottom of the group, Oman, the week before meant that going into the last day, Uzbekistan were three points off the U.A.E as they had managed to beat Qatar 2-1.
Uzbekistan needed to beat China whilst relying on Oman to beat the U.A.E by enough goals that would swing the goal difference. That didn’t happen. The U.A.E-Oman game ended 2-2 and despite a last-minute winner against China and Oman taking a two-goal lead in Abu Dhabi, neither affected the outcome of the group.
Uzbekistan wouldn’t be going to Korea and Japan the following summer. A single point separated second and third in the group and it would be the U.A.E facing off against Iran to decide who would play against Ireland in the inter-confederation play-off.
It was a disappointing campaign for Uzbekistan who fancied their chances in a group that was easier than normal with Japan and South Korea absent.
Uzbekistan would be back though and after picking themselves up from disappointment from failing to qualify for the Korea and Japan finals, Germany 2006 was on the horizon. With no Asian host(s) this time around, FIFA gave the AFC four and a half places for the World Cup compared to the two and a half that was given four years prior due to Japan and South Korea taking up two of the spots.
This meant that Uzbekistan could finish third in their group and still qualify through the play-offs. This was the only realistic way that the White Wolves could qualify as a tough group with South Korea (World Cup semi-finalists in 2002) and Saudi Arabia meant that it would be extremely hard to qualify automatically.
Luckily, the other side in the group was Kuwait. As South Korea and Saudi Arabia were above and beyond Kuwait, and Uzbekistan and won most of their games, third spot was realistic.
Two home 1-1 draws against South Korea and Saudi Arabia in Tashkent alongside a dramatic 3-2 win against Kuwait on the last day had sealed a play-off. Five points from six matches was enough to secure third spot. Bahrain would stand in the way over two legs between Uzbekistan and a inter-confederation play-off with Trinidad and Tobago.
A change of manager had worked before the last game of the group. Former colleague of Roy Hodgson at Bristol City and Malmö manager, Bob Houghton, had been drafted in before the Kuwait game.
The tension was high in Tashkent. This was a strong Uzbekistan side that had reached the Asian Cup quarter-final in 2004 and had lost to Bahrain on penalties. Players such as Maksim Shatskikh were playing for big sides in Europe at the time such as Dynamo Kyiv, and Alexander Geynrikh was at Torpedo Moscow. This was a big chance to qualify, especially with the draw for the inter-confederation play-off being kinder than it was in 2001.
The first leg of the tie went perfectly for Uzbekistan. A 1-0 home win was a solid result to take to Manama and made Uzbekistan favourites to play Trinidad and Tobago. However, FIFA thought otherwise. In the 39th minute of the game, Server Djeparov scored from a penalty to make it 2-0 to Uzbekistan. Referee Toshimitsu Yoshida, awarded an indirect free kick for Bahrain for encroachment instead of a retake of the penalty and ruled the goal out.
Uzbekistan therefore went to FIFA and asked for the game to be recorded as a 3-0 win because of the mistake. Instead, FIFA then ordered a replay of the whole match. Uzbekistan had been completely robbed because of a poor refereeing decision.
Uzbekistan couldn’t repeat the outcome of the original first leg and the replayed game ended 1-1 in Tashkent. Shatskikh managed to salvage a draw for Uzbekistan after Talal Mohamed’s deflected opener two minutes earlier gave Bahrain a crucial away goal in the tie.
The second leg played four days later in Manama was a 0-0 stalemate. Bahrain had managed to sneak through on away goals and a for a second time Uzbekistan had to suffer a cruel heartbreak. Bahrain ended up losing to Trinidad and Tobago in the inter-confederation play-off. But it shouldn’t have been them playing that tie. The Uzbek’s were well and truly robbed and denied of an opportunity to play at their first ever World Cup because of a poor refereeing decision.
Uzbekistan had to wait six years for another chance to qualify for a World Cup. Qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa had been a disaster. A difficult group that included Australia, Japan, Qatar and Bahrain meant that the Uzbek’s finished bottom of the group on four points.
But Uzbekistan were a different side going into qualification for Brazil 2014. The domestic game had improved with FC Nasaf winning the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent to the Europa League) and controversial bankrolled side FC Bunyodkor (who had Zico and Luiz Felipe Scolari as managers, and Rivaldo on a lot of money towards the end of his career) had also reached the Asian Champions League semi-final on several occasions.
On the national side of things, the under-23 side had reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Games in 2006 and 2010 and the first team had also reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for the first time in 2011.
An impressive start to qualification for Brazil 2014 was to set precedent as to what was to come. A difficult first group stage with Japan in didn’t phase Uzbekistan as they finished top of the group, even beating Japan away along the way.
The second group stage didn’t get off to the greatest of starts with no wins in the first five matches in a difficult group that consisted of Iran, South Korea, Qatar and Lebanon, but slowly Uzbekistan started to pick up some big results; 1-0 wins away to Qatar and Iran and another 1-0 win against Lebanon at home had given the momentum that the White Wolves needed.
With two games to play, Uzbekistan sat in an automatic qualification spot in second place with South Korea top. If they could win their next two games away to South Korea and at home to Qatar, they would be going to their first ever World Cup.
An own goal by Akmal Shorakhmedov on 43 minutes gave South Korea the lead in Ulsan and Uzbekistan didn’t recover and lost 1-0. The destiny of the group was no longer in the hands of the White Wolves.
It wasn’t completely over for Uzbekistan as there was still a chance for them to qualify on the last day, like there was in September 2001. But like 2001, it was out of their hands.
As second-place Iran were playing South Korea on the last day, Uzbekistan needed to beat Qatar and hope South Korea beat Iran so they could jump into second place. If Iran were to beat South Korea, Uzbekistan would need to win by six goals against Qatar to go through on goals scored.
Uzbekistan beat Qatar 5-1 in Tashkent which would’ve been fine if South Korea beat Iran in Ulsan, but that didn’t happen. Iran went top of the group after a 1-0 win which meant that it would be another play-off to seal Uzbekistan’s fate. If Uzbekistan had scored two more goals they would’ve qualified.
This time it would be Jordan that Uzbekistan would have to play over two-legs to decide who would play Argentina in another inter-confederation play-off.
The two-legged tie would be just as painful as the Bahrain one for Uzbeks in 2005. After the first leg ended 1-1 away in Amman, Uzbekistan had come back to Tashkent with a crucial away goal. A great start in the second leg gave Uzbekistan a 2-1 lead on aggregate when Changchun Yatai’s Anzur Ismailov gave the White Wolves a 1-0 lead on the night.
Uzbekistan couldn’t hold on. Of course they couldn’t. Saeed Al Murjan made it 1-1 for Jordan just before half-time, then there was extra time which couldn’t settle the sides. So it went all the way to penalties to decide who would play Argentina.
You can guess how this is going to go, can’t you?
Uzbekistan lost 9-8 on penalties, and once again failed to qualify after being so close again. Yet so far.
The future’s looking bright though. A disappointing campaign for Russia 2018 where the White Wolves missed out on a play-off spot on goal difference shouldn’t mask the fact that we might actually see Uzbekistan at a World Cup. The U-23 side won their first ever AFC U-23 Championship in 2018 and reached the semi-final in 2018. Qualification for Qatar 2022 is also going to plan (at the moment) with the side top of the first group stage that includes Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
Maybe 2022 will be the first time Uzbekistan can finally shake off the memories of 2013 and 2005 that have haunted them ever since.