Central Asian soccer is having a moment.
In a satisfying one-two for the region's sports fans, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan qualified earlier this week for the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup by beating the United Arab Emirates and Thailand, respectively.
Tajikistan’s progress in the competition, which is running in Qatar through to February, is the more surprising. Inasmuch as the somewhat arbitrary FIFA rankings mean anything, it came as an upset for a nation in 106th position to outplay a far more monied and better-resourced UAE.
It will now face Jordan on February 2. Uzbekistan squares off against Qatar a day later.
There is a scenario – admittedly highly remote given that regional powerhouses like Iran, Japan and South Korea are still in the competition – in which Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet in the final.
Uzbekistan has come close to glory before, by reaching the semifinals in 2011, when it was dumped out in a 6-0 trouncing at the hands of Australia, another team still in this competition.
This is the first time that Tajikistan has ever reached the knockout stages of this tournament.
Football has a major following back home, but this achievement has come a pleasant surprise.
And there is likely to be a notable political beneficiary of this moment in the sun: Tajikistan football federation president Rustam Emomali, who combines that job with being the chair of the Senate, mayor of the capital city, Dushanbe, and, many believe, a shoo-in to become president of the country. It helps that his father is the current president.
Before taking the helm of the football federation, Emomali played for Istiklol, the country’s strongest team.
A soccer coach who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity was candid; Emomali was not much of a player. But his passion for the sport is for real.
“Since Rustam is a football fan, he must be kept on as president [of the federation]. He has funds and a love for sport. That is the most important thing needed to raise [the level of] Tajik football,” the coach said.
Local fans are also attributing this strong showing to the national team’s Croatian coach, Petar Šegrt, who has been in the job since January 2022.
That might be a little generous. Šegrt had an undistinguished career as a player, and has had an exotic if spotty one as manager. Before taking on the Tajikistan job, he managed Afghanistan and the Maldives.
Under his tutelage, Afghanistan won six of its eight competitive matches. He guided the country to the final of the 2015 South Asian Football Federation Championship, which it lost 2-1 to India. This earned him the nickname in Afghanistan of “Man of Hope” and “Savior.”
With football fever at a high in Tajikistan, one travel company in Dushanbe has been offering $700 tickets for a charter flight to Qatar to catch the quarterfinal match. Social media is buzzing with ebullient commentary and once-passive fans are quickly revising the bios and stats of the players.
Local businesspeople are offering cash bounties to spur the team on to more success.
Emomali has done his bit. He has already pledged $450,000 in bonuses for the whole team for what they’ve done so far. Another $200,000 will be paid to them collectively if they make it to the semis.
Tajik-Chinese gold mining joint venture Zarafshon will award the Tajik team $182,000 for reaching the quarterfinals. If it makes the semifinals, it will pay out another $273,000. Should Tajikistan win the competition outright – the bookmakers assess that likelihood at a 100-1 – the prize will rise to $720,000.
Shokhrukh Saidzoda, head of the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Department and, somehow, also club president of Istiklol, has already promised to gift a car to goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, in recognition of his exploits in the competition so far.