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Classic Qualifiers: Uzbekistan v Tajikistan, 1996

Kuala Lumpur: With just two days until Wednesday’s eagerly awaited Asian Qualifiers draw for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, continues its look back at some classic qualifying matches of yesteryear.

Entering the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers for the first time, Central Asian rivals Uzbekistan and Tajikistan played out a remarkable two-legged affair in 1996, with the White Wolves pulling off an incredible comeback to qualify 5-4 on aggregate after being 4-0 down.

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The backstory

For many years Uzbekistan had been a centre of Central Asian football success, with Pakhtakor becoming the first and only club from the region to reach the Soviet Cup Final in 1968 and producing a litany of stars over the course of 22 seasons in the elite Soviet Top League.

When the now-independent Uzbekistan officially joined the AFC in 1994, the national team wasted no time in showing the rest of Asia their quality, storming to an Asian Games gold medal in Hiroshima with seven successive wins, including successes against Continental heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic.

Having begun life in Asian football with a bang, Uzbekistan entered the qualifying round for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 1996, and were drawn with Tajikistan and Bahrain, before the latter withdrew from the competition, setting up a regional showdown for a place in the Finals in the United Arab Emirates.

Tajikistan was also a nation with a proud footballing history. CSKA Pamir Dushanbe had spent the final three seasons of Soviet football in the top-flight, where they had proven hard to beat on home turf, achieving a number of momentous results, including a 5-1 hammering of Moscow giants Spartak in 1990.

A number of star players from that side had moved on to some of the biggest clubs in Russia post-Independence - with Sergei Mandreko and Mukhsin Mukhamadiev going on to play for the Russian national team - but Tajikistan still featured the likes of Khakim Fuzailov, Yuri Baturenko and Alier Ashurmamadov going into the 1996 qualifiers.

The matches

Tajikistan hosted the first leg at the very stadium where Spartak had been dismantled six years prior, with 20,000 fans turning out in Dushanbe to see their national team’s historic first competitive home fixture in Asian football.

Coached by Bahodir Ibragimov, Uzbekistan arrived in the Tajik capital without Mirdjalal Kasimov, Igor Shkvirin and Azamat Abduraimov - the three overseas-based stars who had been so crucial to their Asian Games triumph two years prior.

A FIFA World Youth Cup winner with the Soviet Union in 1987, Kasimov’s career had gone from strength to strength, winning the Russian title with Alania Vladikavkaz in 1995 and following in the footsteps of the mighty Korean Cha Bum-kun as the second Asian player to score in the UEFA Cup when he netted against Liverpool in the 1995-96 season.

With Uzbekistan’s star trio absent from the first leg on May 8, and Tajikistan boasting six Russia-based starters of their own, Abdulla Muradov’s side dominated the match from the early stages.

Fuzailov netted a penalty in the blink of an eye before Ashurmamadov scored twice in the space of three second-half minutes, and when the prolific Torpedo Moscow forward Arsen Avakov made it 4-0 in the 88th minute, it appeared the Asian Games champions Uzbekistan would be absent from the Asian Cup.

The second leg was held in Tashkent six weeks later, allowing Tajikistan to include additional ‘legionnaires’ including two-time Russian league winner and former Pamir star Rashid Rakhimov as well as the Kiev-based Vitaly Levchenko, while Uzbekistan welcomed back Kasimov, Shkvirin and Abduraimov with open arms.

Uzbekistan needed to win by five clear goals to pull off an improbable recovery, but 15,000 fans still turned out in Tashkent, and they were rewarded with one of the finest comebacks in AFC Asian Cup history.

Kasimov found the net within four minutes of his return after Turkmen referee Eldar Ramazanov awarded a penalty, and Tajikistan’s aggregate lead was soon cut in half as Sergei Andreev made it 2-0 on the night after just eight minutes.

Rushing to regain control, Tajikistan coach Muradov used all three of his substitutes before the half-hour mark, but another successfully converted Kasimov spot-kick made it 4-3 on aggregate in the 33rd minute, before the prolific Shkvirin completed an incredible turnaround with Uzbekistan’s fourth goal of the night with 18 minutes remaining.

Tajikistan went down to 10 men just two minutes into extra-time as Rakhimov was shown a second yellow card, before 20-year-old substitute Zafar Musabaev dealt the decisive blow when he supplied the match-winning golden goal three minutes later.

Having been four goals down, Uzbekistan had pulled off the impossible with a 5-4 aggregate win, confirming they would be among the 12 teams at the 1996 AFC Asian Cup.

The aftermath

The match was the closest Uzbekistan have ever come to missing out of AFC Asian Cup qualification, and although they failed to advance from the group stage at the 1996 tournament, the White Wolves have become consistent challengers at the continental Finals, reaching the knockout stage five times and the semi-finals in 2011.

Conversely, Tajikistan are still waiting for a first successful AFC Asian Cup qualification, and several of the players who featured in June 1996 did not appear again for the national team.

At the age of 32, Khakim Fuzailov’s international career ended in Tashkent, with the defender going on to coach both Tajikistan and FC Istiklol in the years that followed, while the match also ended the national team tenures of Yuri Baturenko and Rashid Rakhimov, with the latter going on to become a successful coach in both Austria and Russia.

Alier Ashurmamadov played his final match for Tajikistan in 2006, and is now the head coach of CSKA Pamir Dushanbe, while Vitaly Levchenko is the current boss of high-flying Tajik club FC Khujand.

Mirdjalal Kasimov remains a legend of Uzbek football, returning to Tashkent to win league titles as a player with Pakhtakor and a coach with Bunyodkor before becoming national team coach on two separate occasions, including leading the team at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

Kasimov’s 31 international goals has him third on the all-time top-scorers list for his country, two places ahead of the excellent Igor Shkvirin, who scored Uzbekistan’s first Asian Cup goal and retired at the age of 38 in 2001 after spells in Malaysia, Israel and India as well as his native Uzbekistan.

Azamat Abduraimov also played in Malaysia and India, as well as Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, before going to serve the Uzbekistan national futsal team as both a player and head coach.

Photos: AFP, Tajikistan Football Federation

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