x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Confidence is high in Uzbekistan ahead of UAE Olympic match

Supporters will pack the stadium in Tashkent expecting their team to make it to London, Paul Oberjuerge will be among them.

The UAE Olympic national team can qualify for London with a win or a draw tomorrow.
The UAE Olympic national team can qualify for London with a win or a draw tomorrow.

When he could be distracted from attempts to sell a four-inch brick of Uzbek bank notes at black-market prices, the taxi driver who called himself Akmal expressed confidence that his nation's Under 23 football team would soon be headed for the London 2012 Olympics. At the UAE's expense.

"I think 1-0 Uzbekistan," he said as night fell in a grey city of four million still in winter's grip. "Maybe 2-0. No problem. We will go to London."

Uzbekistan are a rising football nation. Their senior team recently finished top of their group in third-round World Cup qualifying, ahead of Japan, and are among the favourites to gain one of Asia's four guaranteed berths to Brazil 2014.

Their U23s own a pair of 2-0 home victories during the final round of London 2012 qualifying, and with five goals have scored the most in the group.

The UAE are credited with five goals, as well, but all but two came via a 3-0 forfeited match by Iraq for fielding an ineligible player.

Like the UAE, Uzbekistan have never played in the Olympic football tournament, but a victory here over the UAE tomorrow will send them to London and redirect the UAE into a complicated play-off process that eventually yields one more Summer Games berth.

The Uzbeks know what an advertisement it would be for the nation's football were they to boast one of 16 sides at the Olympics, which is essentially the U23 World Cup.

A hotel concierge who had just escaped dusk temperatures of 3°C, warned a foreigner to waste no time in buying a ticket for thegame. "The stadium will be very full," he said. "Everyone knows of this match."

Even expats on the Uzbekistan Airways flight from Dubai to Tashkent were aware of the game. Like most Uzbeks approached yesterday, they expressed a combination of awe and respect when informed that hundreds of Emiratis will be arriving in the city in the next 24 hours, many of them via charter flights, to see the match. "Uzbekistan is not so wealthy," said one air traveller whose carry-on items included a flat-screen TV.

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Uzbekistan is a nation only half the age of the UAE, a breakaway republic from the old Soviet Union that is led by the autocratic, but perhaps not unpopular, Islam Karimov, the president since independence.

To outsiders, Uzbekistan is perhaps best known as a central Asia nation that straddles the old Silk Road and includes the famed trading city of Samarkand.

Given a chance to criticise the president, Akmal, the cab driver, said Karimov was doing well as a leader. The young man said he is an ethnic Kazakh but he has no intention to leave Uzbekistan because "things are better here".

Inflation remains a stubborn problem, however, and the national currency has little value.

A single US dollar brings 1,800 som (Dh3.6), as the local currency is known, and more than 2,000, as Akmal promised, on the black market.

Many Uzbek fans will travel via subway to the match tomorrow, at the cost of hundreds of som.

But they, like the travelling Emirati supporters, seem serenely confident of victory.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae