Uzbekistan youth development: 'We have to take the last step'

Uzbekistan players line up for a penalty shootout against Australia Source: Getty Images

Uzbekistan has been one of the rising powers in Asian football ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, but the Central Asian nation has yet to take the final step to become a genuine continental power. That could soon change.

Pieter Huistra is not only a former Netherlands international but the ex-winger has spent plenty of time in Asia as the technical director of the Indonesian federation, as a head coach in Japan and now as a technical advisor with Uzbek powerhouse Pakhtakor.

During his time in Tashkent, the one-time Rangers star has become optimistic about the future of the country.

“In the past, they relied on the Soviet system,” Huistra told The World Game. “The players came through the physical education system into clubs that were quite well-organised.”

In a wave of euphoria and optimism, Uzbekistan sprinted out of the Soviet bloc, winning the 1994 Asian Games and the continent was ready for a new challenger.

“Compared to much of Asia, the players here are more European; a combination of Russian and Uzbek style and they can play: they are strong, quick and with decent technique," he added.

Yet the Asian Games did not turn out to be the beginning of an Uzbek golden age.

“In the beginning, there were other things going on in the country that were more important than football," he said.

"The system didn’t work so much for a while and it took 10-15 years to start again. There was not enough money or facilities and it is difficult to organise leagues which is always a problem in Asia.”

That is something that Uzbekistan is looking to improve to ensure that talented young players get plenty of testing games.

“If you want to have a good youth system then you need to have good leagues," he said.

"In Uzbekistan, they are trying to do this and let’s see how this works. There are now U-18 and U-16 leagues, as well as clubs with reserve leagues.”

While the federation is slowly playing more of a part in youth development and moving towards a national academy and curriculum, it is still club-driven at the moment.

“It is all clubs and players come through this way. Teams are organised better. To grow further, the league needs to be developed," he added.

Seasoned Asia-watchers have little doubt that there is plenty of talent in Uzbekistan but, at least as far as the senior side is concerned, there are concerns as to whether the mentality is there to take the final steps to qualify for World Cups and Olympics.

On more than one occasion, the White Wolves have held qualification in their hands, only to let it slip.

“I have seen it,” Huistra said. “I watched Uzbekistan play South Korea in qualification for the 2018 World Cup and the game could have gone either way.

"The Koreans however did just enough to get the result. Uzbekistan is very close but they have to make the final step.”

The U-23 team won the Asia Championships in 2018 but when, in January, the tournament offered three places at the 2020 Olympics, Uzbekistan had two chances to take the third spot but lost to Saudi Arabia and then Australia.

“The quality was there but they missed opportunities in the semi-final and then the third-place play off," he said.

"A good league is important as it makes you tough and able to get the result. If you play big games many times then you become less nervous. They have to learn to play for the result.

"Japan is in a different league. We can look at Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia who have progressed but they have the money.

"Iran is a good example of how to have success with less resources. You have to make a system, a pyramid and make sure that games are competitive and not one-sided.”

Whatever happens, it will take time.

“Look at Switzerland, who came from nothing to become a strong team," he added.

"It took 10 years to build something with blood, sweat and the right funding. Iceland needed a structure, time and investment.

“The quality and talent is here but there needs to be patience too.”