HONG KONG (Reuters) - Ravshan Khaydarov paused mid-sentence as he checked his emotions, pondering the significance of Uzbekistan’s first title win at the Asian U-23 Championship with victory over Vietnam in Saturday evening’s snow-affected finale.
“We made history today and it’s one of the greatest victories for Uzbekistan football and for our country,” said the head coach of the Central Asian nation’s under-23 squad.
“This team is the future of our senior team. Over the last few years we didn’t see any trophies and we can’t say that we have played in a satisfactory way at the tournaments that we have played.
“So this is very important for us.”
Khaydarov’s delight stands in marked contrast to the disappointment and frustration so often felt within Uzbek football during the 24 years since the country emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Expectations were high when, in 1994, a nation that is home to more than 30 million people joined the Asian Football Confederation.
A gold medal-winning performance at the Asian Games in Hiroshima later the same year — the country’s first time competing in Asian competition — only heightened the belief the Uzbeks could challenge the continent’s established hierarchy.
But since then Uzbekistan have fallen short, failing to qualify for the World Cup despite a near-miss in 2006 with only a run to the semi-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup to show for their efforts.
Those struggles prompted an increase in investment in youth development, with Uzbekistan winning the Asian Under-16 Championship in 2012 having also reached the final two years earlier.
The country has, subsequently, qualified for a succession of FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cup tournaments and Saturday’s win over Vietnam was another sign that Uzbekistan are moving closer to establishing themselves as a power of the Asian game.
The Vietnamese, too, are benefiting from a renewed focus on development and the progress of coach Park Hang-seo’s team to the country’s first-ever final in a continental competition captured the imagination of fans at home.
Several thousand flew from Vietnam — and many thousands more took to the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — to watch as Nguyen Quang Hai and Luong Xuan Truong established themselves among the stars of the competition, and of Asian football’s near future.
With qualification for the Olympic Games not at stake in this edition, the focus for each participating nation at the 16-team tournament in China differed.
For Qatar, the ticking of the countdown clock towards their hosting of the 2022 World Cup grows ever louder, with coach Felix Sanchez satisfied with his team’s third place finish after their second semi-final appearance in a row.
“It was a very tough in all six games but we’re satisfied,” said the Spaniard after his side defeated South Korea, who made their customary strong showing, in the third place playoff.
“We won five and drew one, losing on penalties. We are leaving here with a good feeling.”
Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Amlan Chakraborty