It’s difficult to know whether to describe Tajikistan as hopeful or hopeless going into this UFWC title match, their third in five months. The Persian Lions’ previous attempts to become Unofficial Football World Champions have both resulted in thrashings, both dished out by then-champions Japan. The Persian Lions lost 8-0 to the Blue Samurai in October, and then 4-0 in November. At least they could claim some improvement.
There will be a different opponent this time, of course, with North Korea having ended Japan’s long reign to become the current UFWC champions. The match, this Wednesday 29 February, is also a World Cup qualifier, although in that respect it is very much a dead rubber, with both North Korea and Tajikistan having already been eliminated at the expense of Group C rivals Japan and Uzbekistan. So the teams will be playing solely for the UFWC title, and the Unofficial Football World Championships. The match will be played at the 20 Years of Independence Stadium in Khujand.
Tajikistan have lost all five of their previous Group C matches, conceding 17 goals and scoring zero. They only reached this third round of qualifying by default. They were eliminated in the previous round after suffering a 6-1 aggregate loss to Syria, only to be reinstated when FIFA ruled that the latter’s half-Syrian/half-Swedish striker George Mourad was ineligible.
However, Tajikistan actually did reasonably well in their previous group match against North Korea, losing to a single Pak Nam-Chol goal. (It was also a single Pak Nam-Chol goal that gave the North Koreans the 1-0 win over Japan that saw them take the UFWC title.)
Temporary coach Alimzhon Rafikov has returned to club management after the twin drubbings Tajikistan received from Japan. His successor, appointed earlier this month, is the Bosnian Kemal Alispahic, who has previously managed FC Sarajevo and FC Zeljeznicar, plus Syrian side Al-Ittihad Aleppo. The players Alispahic has to work with almost all play within the Tajikistan domestic league.
Captain and midfielder Khurshed Makhmudov is a 29 midfielder with Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda. 22-year-old striker Kamil Saidov and midfielder Ilkhomjon Ortikov play for CSKA Pomir Dushanbe, not to be confused with cross-town rivals CSKA Dushanbe (or Energetik Dushanbe, or Guardia Dushanbe). Top scorer Yusuf Rabiev plays for another Dushanbe club, Tajik leader champions Istiqlol Dushanbe, although he didn’t make it into the squad for Tajikistan’s last match.
As for North Korea, a 1-1 draw against 10-man Kuwait doesn’t look particularly impressive for team holding the title of Unofficial Football World Champions. Details of that friendly match in Changsha, China were hard to come by, and it’s difficult to speculate on how coach Jo Tong-Sop might try to improve his side. North Korea’s only star player, Jong Tae-Se (known as Chong Tese in Germany, and the People’s Rooney everywhere else) has moved from Bochum to Cologne, but has yet to play for the Bundesliga 1 club. In any case, he is unlikely to be involved in the Tajikistan match due to club commitments.
FIFA rank Tajikistan 140th in the world, compared to North Korea at 106th. Having beaten Japan and drawn with Kuwait in their previous two matches, the North Koreans are probably slightly stronger than that ranking suggests. However, given their home advantage and the impetus of a new coach, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Tajikistan could cause an upset and win this match to take the UFWC title, becoming an even more unlikely champion than North Korea.
Can Tajikistan make it third time lucky? Can Kemal Alispahic lead Tajikistan to UFWC glory in his first match in charge? Will North Korea stand firm and remain Unofficial Football World Champions? Will TBC score again for North Korea? All of these questions and more will be answered on Wednesday.
Whatever the result of this match, and whoever emerges as unofficial champions, the UFWC will be contested at the AFC Challenge Cup tournament in Nepal in March. Both 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 runs from 8 to 19 March.
The opening Group B matches are on 9 March, with North Korea facing the Philippines, and Tajikistan taking on India. So, whatever happens on Wednesday, UFWC fans are in for a real treat over the next few weeks, with some new nations making their UFWC bow, and the very real possibility of the Unofficial Football World Championships heading off into previously uncharted territories. Join us here for all the UFWC news that’s fit to print.