Tajikistan wrestles with football fever after Asian Cup exploits

AFP , Wednesday 31 Jan 2024

Tajikistan's national sport is traditional wrestling but the poorest country in the former Soviet Union is now just two wins away from football's Asian Cup final.

Tajikistan's forward #09 Rustam Soirov and teammates celebrate with national flags after they won the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup round of 16 football match between Tajikistan and United Arab Emirates at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha, on January 28, 2024. Photo: AFP


The Central Asian nation are making their debut in the tournament and coach Petar Segrt said there were "no limits" after beating the United Arab Emirates on penalties in the last 16.

On Friday in Qatar they face Jordan in the quarter-finals, something few outside the world's 106th-ranked team expected before the competition began.

Alovidin Buriev, a commentator for Tajikistan's TV Varzish and who has reported on football for over 35 years, said the players were "already heroes".

"Until this Asian Cup, we didn't have stars. Now all our players are stars," he told AFP in Doha.

"In our last five games we have been very, very good. Our national team doesn't play like that."

Land-locked Tajikistan is bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.

It gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been led by 71-year-old President Emomali Rahmon for over 30 years.

His regime has been criticised by rights organisations for restricting freedoms and cracking down on the opposition.

Rahmon's eldest son Rustam has played a key role in the development of football in the country of about 10 million people.

He helped found Istiklol, a club based in the capital Dushanbe, in 2007 and he even played for them as a striker.

Istiklol have since gone on to win the Tajikistan Higher League for the past 10 seasons.

An expanded Asian Champions League has also allowed Istiklol, who have 10 players in Tajikistan's 26-man Asian Cup squad, to make a splash outside their own country.

In 2021 they pulled off a 4-1 win over Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal, who have won the Champions League a record four times and last summer signed Brazilian Neymar and a host of other top international players.

"This was the first time that Istiklol had the chance to play these sort of teams, so to go there and win 4-1 was a massive accomplishment," said Martin Lowe, a football writer for website The Asian Game.

Brotherly love

Lowe says the Tajikistan national team have made "a gradual improvement" over the past few years.

But their progress has exploded at the Asian Cup under the leadership of larger-than-life coach Segrt, who was not always universally popular.

The charismatic Croat has fostered a family spirit, saying "the most important thing is to make harmony between people".

The team were stunned when star striker Manuchekhr Dzhalilov was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and again when midfielder Amirbek Dzhuraboev was ruled out of the Asian Cup through injury.

In keeping with his family ethos, Segrt has brought both players to Qatar to cheer on the team.

But defender Zoir Dzhuraboev -- Amirbek's brother -- says there is more to the coach than just charity.

"Of course our coach is very positive, very kind," he said.

"But he knows what time he has to be totally friendly and kind, and what time he has to be hard and strict towards us."

Party time

Tajikistan's national sport is gushtigiri, a traditional form of wrestling similar to judo.

Football is popular throughout the country though and the national team's exploits at the Asian Cup have captivated the public.

A special charter flight brought around 200 fans from Dushanbe to Doha for the game against UAE, and there are plans to bring more over for the quarter-final.

Segrt says more children in Tajikistan have started to play football in the last few years and thinks the sport is developing there "in the right way".

For the moment though, all eyes are glued to what is happening in Doha.

"Too many people are not sleeping and waiting for the match," said the journalist Buriev.

"They had a good party after Tajikistan beat the Emirates."

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