Tajikistan 1-1 North Korea
Scorers: Jang Song-Hyok (North Korea), Khamrakulov (Tajikistan)
North Korea retained the Unofficial Football World Championships title, but Tajikistan restored a bit of pride at the 20 Years of Independence Stadium in Khujand today. Officially, this match was a World Cup Qualifier, although both Tajikistan and North Korea had already effectively been eliminated at the expense of Group C rivals Japan and Uzbekistan. Unofficially, it was a UFWC title match, with North Korea the unlikely champions, and Tajikistan the even more unlikely challengers.
Tajikistan’s previous two UFWC title matches had ended in heavy defeat. They lost 8-0 in October and 4-0 in November, on both occasions to then-champions Japan. So this 1-1 draw was something to be proud of. Indeed, Akhtam Khamrakulov’s goal should be cheered from the rooftops of Khujand, it being the very first goal Tajikistan have scored in this round of World Cup qualifiers.
However, the real spoils go to North Korea, who took the lead in this match through a 53rd-minute penalty, converted by 21-year-old defender Jang Song-Hyok of the Rimyongsu Sports club. As predicted, North Korea’s star man Jong Tae-Se of Cologne didn’t play, and nor did fellow Europe-based striker Pak Kwang-Ryong of Basel. Tajik hero Khamrakulov equalised for his country in the 61st minute. The 24-year-old striker plays for leading Tajikistan side Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda.
So North Korea are still the unofficial champs, but Tajikistan might well get another bite at the UFWC cherry very soon. Both North Korea and Tajikistan will now compete at the AFC Challenge Cup tournament in Kathmandu, Nepal, with the UFWC title once again up for grabs. North Korea and Tajikistan have been drawn in Group B, along with the Philippines and India. (The other sides taking part in this tournament for emerging football nations are hosts Nepal, Turkmenistan, Palestine and the Maldives.)
The tournament kicks off on 8 March, and the first UFWC-related fixture is on the following day, Friday 9 March, when North Korea will attempt to defend their title against the Philippines. Should they survive that test, the next UFWC title match will see North Korea once again face Tajikistan, on 11 March. The North Koreans will go on to play India two days later. The top two teams in Group B will progress to the semi-finals, with the final eventually being played on 19 March.
In order to retain the UFWC title throughout the AFC Challenge Cup tournament, North Korea will need to avoid defeat in five consecutive matches. That looks like a tough task for an underwhelming North Korea side, even against such lowly opposition. Whoever emerges from this tournament holding the UFWC title will be very unlikely Unofficial Football World Champions. Should be fun.