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In cooperation with FIFA and UFA, a special article was prepared about the path of the U-17 national team of Uzbekistan to the World Cup. Head coach Jamoliddin Rahmatullayev and the players of our team expressed their opinions about the current level of Uzbek football, their impressions in Indonesia, future goals and the possibilities of our country in the FIFA World Cup 26™.

Uzbekistan’s U-17s, including coach Jamoliddin Rakhmatullaev, spoke to FIFA from Indonesia about the standard of Uzbeki football and the country’s hopes of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup 26™.

It was ten years ago that Uzbekistan came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. While they fell just short, losing in the AFC play-offs to Jordan on penalties, they nevertheless made waves during that campaign, proving that the country would sooner or later be able to make it on to the biggest stage in world football.

Despite their best efforts, Uzbekistan’s debut did not come in 2018 or 2022, but they are still sowing the seeds for a brighter future. Their U-20 team has played at the past four World Cups, most recently this year, while the U-17s are here in Indonesia, a decade after they last graced the tournament.

It is becoming increasingly evident that football in the country is making real strides, particularly at youth level. “It’s clear that football is progressing well in Uzbekistan,” says Lazirbek Mirzaev, proud captain of the U-17s. “You will have seen our U-20s and our U-17s play at World Cups this year. Our senior team is preparing for their qualifiers, and I think that this coming World Cup will be the one where our team finally gets there.”

Hopes of a maiden World Cup appearance have never been higher since Uzbekistan first contested the qualifiers back in 1997. Fans and players alike are convinced that star keeper Utkir Yusupov and his team-mates will be heading to North America in three years’ time.

“Forty-eight teams will contest the World Cup in 2026, and I think that that gives us an extra chance of achieving what would be an historic qualification for our country,” says U-17 coach Jamoliddin Rakhmatullaev. “Football is developing in Uzbekistan, training is improving and the talent is on the rise. I believe in my team and in the country’s senior squad. We have a lot of guys who now play abroad, in Italy and elsewhere.”

Everyone in Uzbekistan knows the new format of the FIFA World Cup™ being implemented from 2026 onwards will enable the AFC to have eight or nine representatives, compared with just four or five at the moment. As well as usual contenders like Japan, Korea Republic, Australia, IR Iran and Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan are now among the genuine candidates to reach football’s showpiece event.

While the expanded format will certainly help, much of the enthusiasm is down to the quality of the Uzbekistan senior team and the highly promising new generation of players, who are gradually establishing themselves at the top level.

“We have excellent players and excellent forwards like (Jaloliddin) Masharipov, (Eldor) Shomurodov and (Otabek) Shukurov,” says Amirbek Saidov, who was the hero of the 3-0 win over Canada on Monday. “They could come through qualifying and make everyone’s dreams of seeing Uzbekistan at a World Cup finally come true. They can do it.”

With two goals to his name already at Indonesia 2023™‚ Saidov knows better than most that there is a direct line between the youth set-up and full international level. As evidence, he can cite two examples of players who made it through to the last 16 of the most recent U-20 World Cup in Argentina and are now part of the squad about to get their qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 26™ under way.

“After the U-20 World Cup, two players went on to play abroad – Abbosbek Fayzullaev [CSKA Moscow] and Abdukodir Khusanov, who’s now in France [with Lens]. We hope that we can follow in their footsteps,” says Saidov, who is certainly determined to aim high.

The last time that Uzbekistan had both of its youth teams qualify for the World Cup was in 2013, when their senior team narrowly missed out on taking Asia’s intercontinental play-off berth for Brazil 2014. Is that a portent of (better) things to come? The youngsters certainly believe that they can help to give the senior team the motivation they will need.

At Indonesia 2023, Uzbekistan came unstuck in their opener, losing 3-0 to Mali, before turning things around and beating Canada by the same score. Those three points give them all the incentive they need to put in a good showing against Spain on Thursday and make it through to the Round of 16, as they did in 2011 and 2013. Not that Rakhmatullaev’s players will be resting on their laurels if they do: 2026 is just around the corner and by then, they will could ready to play at full international level, hopefully over in North America.

“I honestly think that playing at the World Cup is a possibility for me,” says Mirzaev. “My aim is to make it up to the senior team and to play at the World Cup with them, hopefully even as early as 2026.”

Team-mate Ollabergan Karimov has set his sights similarly high, adding: “It would be the first World Cup for us at senior level and it’s a real hope of mine to go to America. Playing at the World Cup is a childhood dream and I truly believe that I can do it with Uzbekistan in 2026.”

The coach meanwhile is keeping his feet on the ground, even if he is full of confidence regarding what the future holds for his current World Cup squad. “There’s a lot of competition at U-17 level and it’s the same with the seniors,” says Rakhmatullaev. “My players aren’t yet 18, so 2026 might be a bridge too far for them, but for 2030 on the other hand, I honestly believe that a lot of my players will be established in the senior team by then, I really do.”

With the full international team kicking off their World Cup 2026 qualifying campaign against Turkmenistan, and the U-17 team going up against Spain, Thursday 16 November will be a day like no other for Uzbekistan fans, who are now ready to cheer on all of their teams every time a World Cup comes around.