Football has ground to a halt all across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving fans gasping for a football fix. Belarus, Burundi and Nicaragua have been dealing with everyone doses of the beautiful game. But the Belarusian football association are coming under increased pressure from the fans to suspend it so, it looks like we might be down to bare bones! Well were all in luck, and its from the most unlikely of countries. Please welcome Tajikistan to the world football stage!
A brief description of Tajikistan
Tajikistan is an entirely landlocked country in Central Asia, with a population of around nine million people. It borders Kyrgyzstan to the north, China to the east, Afghanistan to the south and Uzbekistan to the west. The ancient Silk Road once passed through Tajikistan, linking China with the West. It was used to carry goods such as silks, wools, gold, and silver.
Tajikistan is covered by mountains of the Pamir range, with the majority of the country being over 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) above sea level. The highest peak comes in at 7,495 m (24,590 ft), which is just over 1000 (3,280 ft) meters shorter than Mt Everest! The official language is Tajik, but Russian is also widely understood. The most practised religion is Islam, with 97% of the population identifying as Muslim.
Tajikistan became an independent nation in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated. However, a civil war was fought almost immediately after independence, lasting for five years between 1992 and 1997. It’s estimated that there could be up to 100,000 casualties and over 1.2 million residents displaced due to the conflict, but we won’t go into the finer details of that war as that’s another blog for a different day!
So what about football in Tajikistan?
Football in Tajikistan is the most popular sport in the country, and they haven’t done too badly in it over the years. The Tajikistan Football Federation was originally founded in 1936 as the Tajikistan SSR, a sub-federation of the Soviet Football Federation. In the following year, the first official Tajik SSR championship was held. It was composed of over 20 teams with the now-defunct Dynamo Stalinabad taking the first-ever crown.
In the same year, Dynamo Stalinabad appeared in the USSR Cup – essentially the FA Cup of the USSR – where they defeated Spartak Tashkent 2-1, before getting spanked 5-0 by Lokomotiv Baku. In the following year, Dynamo Stalinabad defeated Spartak Leninabad 4-0 in the final of the first-ever Tajik Cup, before going on to win the cup a further 11 times. They also won the Tajik league a total of 7 times, becoming the dominant force of Tajik football in the early to mid-20th century.
In 1947, for the first time in the history of Tajik football, Dynamo Stalinabad competed in the Soviet First League. Dynamo were placed into the Central Asian qualification group, along with a host of other teams from across the region such as Spartak Tashkent, Lokomotiv Ashgabat and Dynamo Alma-Ata. Dynamo won the group losing only 3 times from a possible 28 games. They advanced to the final stage but lost out to Russian powerhouse Lokomotiv Moscow.
That was about as good as it got, with nothing much of real note happening on the international stage for the Tajik teams.
What about football in Tajikistan now?
Only after the fall of the Soviet Union were Tajikistan granted an independent football governing body. The reformed Tajikistan Higher League was founded in 1992 to include eight teams, and Tajikistan played its first international match as an independent nation in the same year, playing out a 2-2 draw against Uzbekistan in Dushanbe. They gained full membership into FIFA in 1994 and soon after were admitted into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The first official competition the Tajik national team entered was the qualifiers for the 1996 Asian Cup. They were due to play Uzbekistan and Bahrain; however, Bahrain later withdrew, leaving Tajikistan to a play-off game against their neighbours. Tajikistan were cruising for qualification after winning the first leg 4–0, but they were devastatingly beaten in the away leg 0–5 after extra time to go crashing out of the competition!
The national side competed in their first-ever major tournament at the 1998 Asian games in Thailand, finishing a respectable 14th out of 23, just a point behind YPT favourites North Korea. In the following years after a couple of failed World Cup qualification campaigns and a 16-0 demolition job of minnows Guam, the Tajik national team won its first-ever international tournament beating Sri Lanka 4–0 in Dhaka Bangladesh, to win the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup in 2006! It’s, however, been all downhill since then. A disappointing 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign was followed by an embarrassing set of results against The Philippines, Yemen and Nepal saw them fail to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. They currently find themselves 121st in the FIFA World Rankings.
What about the Domestic Leagues?
Well, the first champions of the Tajik Higher League were CSKA Pomir Dushanbe in 1992, who are owned by the Tajik army. However, the opening few championship trophies were shared between a few teams. That’s before a side called Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda turned up! Formed by factory workers of the TALCO aluminum factory, Regar-TadAZ dominated football in Tajikistan in the early the turn of the 21st century. They won an incredible seven out of eight league trophies between 2001 and 2008, before running into some financial difficulties having been on the brink of bankruptcy.
Since then, FC Istiklol have overtaken Regar-TadAZ as the most successful team in Tajikstan, winning eight league titles including currently being on a six-year consecutive streak. They’ve also racked up eight Tajik Cup victories since 2009 – very impressive!
The league currently has eight teams who play each other three times over the course of the season. The winner gains entry into the AFC Champions League and the runner up goes into the AFC Cup, the Asian equivalent to the UEFA Europa League. As for the basement teams, relegation to Tajik First Division beckons for whoever finishes rock bottom, whilst finishing second to last will result in a relegation play-off between the runners-up of the Tajik First Division over a two-legged affair.
So why is football in Tajikistan starting despite COVID-19?
Quite simply, Tajikistan insists that the country has no cases of the virus as yet; the beautiful game must go on! Officials from the Tajik Football Association are also hoping that the increased exposure from global football fans looking for a game to watch, and the preying bookmakers looking to take their money, will provide the league with a rare opportunity to reach a global audience. Some precautions will still be taken. All games will be behind closed doors for the opening few weeks and can only be viewed on TV. The opening match of the season was the Super Cup clash between current champions Istiklol and league runners-up Khujand at the Pamir Stadium, Dushanbe. Istiklol ran out winners, beating Khujand 2-1 in an entertaining affair.