While the Armenian national team lingers at the bottom of the group and is currently undergoing a coaching change, another Armenian coach is steering a so-far successful qualifying campaign. Uzbekistan head coach Samvel Babayan shares his thoughts on the football boom in his country, his young prospects, and World Cup qualification odds to championat.com.
-Was it difficult to return the players to the right track after a loss to Iran?
-First of all, it’s a question of psychology. We’d have to return to the games we played well and where we dominated on the pitch. We made two mistakes against Iran, one of which led to a goal. Besides, our leader, around whom team play is built-Odil Ahmedov-was absent. In our last fixture against China, he appeared on the pitch, although it was to some degree risky. Fortunately, his return led to us dominating and achieving an important win.
-China currently invests huge funds into football. But it seems to have no effect on Chinese homegrown players.
-I know Chinese football well enough, as two of our players compete in their league. We study all our opponents in the anatomic pathology way-strategy, tactics, individual qualities. I am acquainted with Chinese head coach (ed.note-Gao Hongbo, resigned after losing to Uzbekistan), and their qualifying failures are a mystery to me. They excelled in the end of the second qualifying round, literally biting their way to the next stage. But it’s hard to explain what’s happening to China now. They individually skilled footballers, they have manpower for the national team. The arrival of foreign stars to their league gave a certain momentum to football’s development in that country, so that’s why I think there is a progress, while the problems are on the psychological level. Chinese side has to bear enormous pressure. When they played against us in Tashkent, there were more Chinese journalists present than Uzbek.
-At one point in time Uzbekistan, like China now, was a place where world-class stars flocked to-Rivaldo, Scolari, Eto’o. Did this system yield any results?
-Compared to China, Uzbekistan made more rational, quality, and precise capital investments. As far as I know, The Heavenly Kingdom allows for tax breaks to companies that invest in football, leading to many clubs becoming financial monsters. China is looking into future-their development plan is devised for years ahead. Priority number one for them is to make football a mass acitivity, and only then they’ll be concentrating on quality.
Concerning our football boom-yes, it gave a good propulsion to football development. There was a heated rivalry between Bunyodkor and Pahtakor Tashkent. They also tried to increase public interest in football. And many began taking it up, the derby games were sell-outs, the influx of young men dreaming of becoming footballers has increased.
-Did such mass involvement become a guarantee of the successful performance in the current qualifying campaign?
-We made two or three important steps towards our sacred dream-playing at the World Cup. It would be premature to state that Uzbekistan team showed any kind of heroism. I think that we have a lot left to do in order to achieve the desired outcome. For us, the next game is the most important. In light of preparation for an important match against South Korea, I’d rather not talk about our achievements.
-Still, did anything change since your arrival at the head coach position? It seems that the results started happening when you began heading the team.
-Again, I’d rather not boast and drone on about some results we have achieved. I’ll just say that I have created a collective of like-minded individuals with clearly defined goals, dedication to idea, understanding of the game module, and maximum self-exertion. I have achieved a consolidation of efforts from everyone, without exception-footballers, journalists, fans, and my coaching colleagues, who work in the clubs with national team men. Many current players are alums of Pahtakor academy and took their first steps in professional football there. It’s a club that I headed for 15 years and where I gave special attention to the construction of the vertical: school-academy-reserves squad-team. Together, we have evolved in development, and that helps me in forming a dedicated, battle-ready collective.
-In Russia, the clubs are concentrating on their personal interests, which at times differ from those of the national team. Is it different in Uzbekistan?
-I’m familiar with Russian football scene, follow it closely. And I am surprised when club interests prevail over national ones. I think that many football problems in Russia originated from that.
-Before helming the first official national team match, I did a large amount of work. As it is in your country, Uzbekistan had a kind of a national pastime-to constantly criticize its players. After my appointment to the head coaching position, I have gathered the journalists and asked them: does our country have better players than the ones that I have invited to the team? They answered in the negative. So why aren’t you supporting them? If Uzbekistan has players that are more talented than Ahmedov, Denisov, Djeparov-show them to me, we’ll invite them. I asked them not to pressure the guys. They’re young, they always read critical articles, aggressive remarks. They must be supported, they’re our national treasure. Same thing with the fans. I met with leaders of all fan clubs and explained to them that national team’s success is not the success of Babayan or the players-it’s the success of the entire country.
-In Russia we have another problem-at times, national team players fall into a sort of euphoria and make some odd choices, if we were to remember such things as a recent story involving Kokorin and Mamayev. Is it the same with the Uzbekistan squad?
-Such a thing is impossible here for one simple reason-the guys have immediately accepted my demands, not only concerning the game plan, but also off-pitch behavior. Naturally, discipline away from the game reflects on the training process and the game itself. Loose behavior is out of place at the Uzbekistan national team.
-According to you, it’s still early to talk about team’s success. But you’re an experienced man, and the team has many young athletes. Is it hard to fight the euphoria in their heads, or does it even exist?
-We have outlined our priorities. Game is over-we prepare for the next, by actively analyzing previous games, and maintaining constant contact with players. There is no euphoria, since athletes know about the thin line between love and hate. Lack of focus is out of the question. Even now, talking to you, my thoughts are in Korea.
-You’re actively integrating young players into the team. Is it a forced measure or did a very talented generation grow up in Uzbekistan?
-We really do have many talented young footballers. These days, Uzbekistan is a constant participant at youth and junior world championships. Young player, whom I call up here, have gone through these tournaments and have a good level of experience. For example, our youth team placed 8th at the last year’s World Cup in New Zealand. A good result, although, in my opinion, they could have reached the semis. Now those guys are leaders of their clubs, they are constantly competing in the Asian Champions League. We have large numbers of talented youth. As far as I understand, I’m currently in charge of the most talented team in modern history of Uzbekistan. I don’t want to insult the previous generations, it’s just my personal opinion. Nowadays, we have players the level of Ahmedov, Denisov, Ismailov, Haydarov, Djeparov, Geynrikh-a constellation of players, around whom the team is formed, Plus, the young players keep arriving-Sergeyev, Krimets, Shukurov, Khashimov, Sokhibov, Shomurodov.
I’d like to note the last one of the above-mentioned. Currently, Eldor is the starting player. I think he’ll become team’s leader in the near future. He’s marked by an exceptional work ethic. He’s naturally physically fit, is not afraid to dribble. His dribble-past game is a wonder of the world. There are many players who excel at this component, but Shomurodov is capable of using the technique when necessary, after which he provides a timely pass or takes a shot at goal. Plus, he is capable of quality attack finishing. I think he’ll be a top-level footballer in the future.
-Are you making plans about his European career?
-Currently, the Asian clubs have considerable financial capabilities. You can go to an Arabic club and degrade there. Unfortunately, there are examples where players prefer out of this world financial conditions to self-improvement. But Shomurodov has a strong desire to play in Europe, he wants to improve. I’m glad Eldor’s thoughts are this way. He understands that he has to unfold his talent and achieve progress.
-To wrap-up the youth theme. An appearance of a constellation of talented footballers-is it a coincidence or the result of football development in Uzbekistan?
-In the country, football is advancing at a fast face, in large part due to the fact that it’s supported and sponsored by the government, following an order from the president. No other country has this many legislations, aimed at developing football. The infrastructure, the material base are improving, if you drive through Tashkent-you’ll see football pitches to the left and to the right, where boys kick the ball around from dawn to dusk. Each region has stadiums which can host national team games. Also, academies are attached to every club, whose job is to methodically evolve and to march in step with the times.
Lastly, the situations that took place in Russia with Rotor Volgograd, Saturn, Uralan are out of question here, when clubs simply vanished. Sponsorship and volume of financing are mandated by the government. I think that the development of football in Uzbekistan is the direct result of the attention of nation’s leadership to the sport. I’d especially like to note the contribution of the president of Uzbekistan Football Federation, Mirabror Zufarovich Usmanov, who gave his heart and soul to football.
-The roles of Vitaliy Denisov and Odil Ahmedov are of interest. In Lokomotiv Moscow and Krasnodar, respectively, they geared towards specific goals. In the national team, are they allowed more freedom of action on the pitch?
-The first thing I ask of my guys when they arrive to the team: all club affairs must take second place. Players come with different mindsets-one just lost his last game, the other-won. At the Uzbekistan national team there are certain demands, which must be met by both Denisov and Ahmedov, they are professionals and understand that. As leaders, they must bet the first to meet these demands, since the young players look up to them. There is a certain subordination and there are tasks that they must perform on the pitch. I have no problems either with Vitaliy or Odil.
Undoubtedly, they are the most talented Uzbekistani players today, but I think that both have yet to realize their full potential to the maximum and that they’ll greatly help their clubs in achieving the goals.
-Do Ahmedov or Denisov tell you anything interesting about Russian football? Or, perhaps, do they provide info about the opponents? For instance, Rostov men Azmoun and Ezatolahi play for the Iranian side.
-We are interested in any information that may help the national team. But club and national team are cloistered territories, as you may well know. Within legal limits the players share information. I have a two-way street going with my men, I always explain each of my decisions to them. Of course, I listen to their considerations and outlooks, it’s mutually beneficent. But the game model and philosophy demands are non-negotiable.
-FC Orenburg has a player with Uzbeki passport, Vadim Afonin, who plays a certain role there. But so far he’s not on the national side. What is the cause of this?
-There are many rumors about Afonin’s citizenship, so let me draw out the current situation. I have spoken to Vadim and told him that he is welcome to join the Uzbekistan team, in response he also expressed his desire to play for us. But currently, the organizational problems involving his passport are in the way. In the nearby future the question of his passport’s validity will be decided. If valid-he’ll be called up for the next game. Of course, a player of such caliber would be of great help to us, and he definitely earned an invitation to the national team. Currently, the legal specialists of the Uzbekistan Football Federation are working on this problem.
-The best-known representative of the Uzbek football on the international stage is Ravshan Irmatov, the referee. What is the explanation of his phenomenon?
-First of all, Ravshan is professional to the core. The sheer scope of work he does every day to improve himself greatly exceeds that of any athletes. That’s a ton work. Plus, of course, the talent. His father was a football coach at the Uzbek League, and he was brought up well. He’s The Man. To me, Irmatov is most advanced contemporary referee.
-Currently, Uzbek team is one spot short of their highest FIFA ranking position, and it overtook Russia. Is this rating important to you?
-Naturally, it’s good to see the rise in the international rankings. It provides certain advantages when the choice of opponents in the friendlies is made. Everyone looks at the ranking table. It’s great when progress and development are present.
-What is the team’s goal?
-To qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
-For Uzbekistani team it will practically be a domestic tournament. Will it serve as additional motivation? Considering that many citizens will be able to see the national team play.
-Of course. Currently, millions of people in Uzbekistan, even those that don’t know much about football, are dreaming of attending the World Cup matches and supporting the national side. Even women, who not long ago could not tell football apart from volleyball, when seeing me on the street are thankful for the positive emotions received by them and their husbands. Our country is enjoying a huge football boom. On our end, will do everything we can to make our compatriots’ dreams come true.