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Uzbekistan for World Cup 2014? (video)

Ask people to point to Uzbekistan on a map and the majority will struggle. Ask people what they know about the Uzbek football team and you’ll be met by a blank look. You may even be asked to leave the building. Yet in just under 500 days time, we may be learning a lot more about Central Asia’s rising football powerhouse on football’s biggest stage – the World Cup finals.

Uzbekistan’s national football team has never qualified for a World Cup and only played their first match in 1992 following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union just a year earlier.

Yet, at present, Uzbekistan are in pole position to qualify for Brazil 2014.

They currently sit top of Group A in the fourth and final round of the Asian World Cup Qualifiers above South Korea, Iran, Qatar and Lebanon having played 5 games. To automatically book their place at the finals, Uzbekistan need to ensure that they finish in the top 2 places within the group and in which they have 2 home games and one away game remaining to do so.

The Uzbek national team – currently placed 57th in the Fifa World Rankings – have achieved some incredible results on their way to their current position in this World Cup qualifying campaign.

In the third round of qualification, Uzbekistan conceded only 1 goal throughout a 6 game group phase which included remarkable away victories against Asian superpower Japan and 2010 World Cup entrants North Korea.

Their fine away form has continued into the current qualification round in which they achieved an outstanding 1-0 victory against Iran in the intimidating Azadi Stadium in Tehran, avenging their only loss of the campaign – a 1-0 defeat at home to the Iranis.

The Uzbeks’ achievement thus far appears even more excepetional when you consider that the majority of the squad ply their trade in their homeland, barring a couple of players who play in Russia and Ukraine. The introduction of a pro-active federation chairman and the appointment of a young talented Uzbek coach appear to be fundamental reasons for their recent success.

Uzbekistan do have history in World Cup qualifiers. In the final round of qualification for the 2006 World Cup, the Uzbek team faced Bahrain in a two-legged play-off for the right to play Trinidad and Tobago to secure a place at the finals in Germany. However, the tie with Bahrain was shrouded in controversy.

1-0 up in the first leg in Uzbekistan, the Uzbeks were awarded a penalty which they converted. However, as the ball was struck, an Uzbek player encroached within the area. As a result, the referee disallowed the goal and bizarrely awarded Bahrain an indirect free-kick instead of ordering that the penalty be re-taken.

The match finished 1-0 to Uzbekistan yet they protested that they should have been awarded a default 3-0 victory as a result of the referee’s error. Subsequently, FIFA ordered that the whole game be replayed. Uzbekistan could only manage a 1-1 draw at home and drew 0-0 in Bahrain therefore were unfairly knocked out on away goals.

This time round, Uzbekistan will be hoping that they do not have to rely upon a winner takes all play-off for World Cup qualification.

In recent years Uzbek club side Bunyodkor briefly grabbed the attention of the footballing world by using their vast sums of money to attract Brazilians Rivaldo, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Zico to the country.

However, it may soon be the Uzbekistan national team grabbing the limelight with qualification for the country’s first ever World Cup finals.