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Uzbekistan's footballers make Olympic history

May 1, 2024

Victory in the under-23 Asian Cup semifinals means Uzbekistan's men have secured a place at the Olympics for the first time in the country's history. A final loss is tough to take but bigger tests are to come.

Uzbek players celebrate their success after the final whistle
Uzbekistan made history at the U23 Asian Cup by finally qualifying for the OlympicsImage: Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto/IMAGO

For the first time in history, Uzbekistan will compete in a team sport at the Olympics.

Victory over Indonesia in a wild under-23 Asian Cup semifinal saw Indonesia have a goal disallowed and a man sent off, Uzbekistan fire off 28 shots and hit the woodwork four times, before running out 2-0 winners to secure their spot in Paris this summer.

"I dedicate this victory to our President, our people and our supporters," said head coach Timur Kapadze.

"It's true we dominated this game, my players were better physically and tactically. It was a game where we felt the pressure because we wanted to go to the Olympics."

Olympic regulations state that men's squads are restricted to under 23 players (born on or after 1 January 2001) with a maximum of three over-age players allowed in the 18-player squad.

Olympic history long in the making

In the current team is the first ever Uzbek player to play in France's top flight, 20-year-old Lens defender, Abdukodir Khusanov, and 21-year-old holding midfielder and captain Abdurauf Buriev, who plays his club football for Olympic Tashkent in the Uzbekistan Super League. Buriev has been a star in this tournament, but it's the collective power of this Uzbekistan team that made their historic run possible.

Uzbek players celebrate with their fans
This is a huge moment for Uzbekistan footballImage: Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto/IMAGO

In Qatar, the team scored 14 goals, equaling the record for the most goals by a team in a single tournament, and conceded just one, in the final. They are first team since Saudi Arabia to make two straight — and three overall — finals. An injury time loss in the final to Japan prevented the Uzbeks from being first ever side to win this competition twice.

"It is a very big moment in my career [to qualify for the Olympics] but I cannot say anything because it was a very emotional match," Buriev said after the semifinal win.

Uzbekistan's history in this tournament has actually been unlucky, even before the cruel late blow on Friday. The year they won in 2018 was a non-Olympic year and in 2020, when the tournament served as a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics, they missed out on an Olympic spot after losing the third-place playoff. In 2022, they lost in the final. This Olympic dream has been a long time in the making.

Indeed, qualifying for the Olympics is perhaps the greatest achievement in the country's football history. Both the men's and women's teams have not only never been to an Olympics before, but have also never competed at a World Cup. Other than the under-23's victory in 2018, the only notable success so far is the men's first team's fourth-placed finish at the 2011 Asian Cup.