INTERVIEW: Uzbek legend Server Djeparov

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South Korea v Uzbekistan - FIFA World Cup Qualifier
Djeparov has over 100 caps for Uzbekistan's national team

The season has been a painfully disappointing one for ’s , who have rather shockingly found the net only 30 times in 36 Classic matches.

It was perhaps apt then, that their biggest result of the year, a  semi final victory against runaway league leaders Jeonbuk Motors, came via a 0-0 draw. In that match, Seongnam demonstrated a defensive resilience which will be needed this weekend against a FC Seoul side who are unbeaten in the three encounters between the two clubs this year, having conceded just one goal.

Djeparov, 32, is confident that despite Seongnam finding themselves one place off the relegation zone with two matches remaining, they can win the FA Cup. When asked if the need for survival outweighs the need to win the knockout tournament, he shrugs: “Of course we will do everything we can to win the cup. This is a completely different competition so if we are not lucky in the [K-League], we may find luck in the cup.”

It was at FC Seoul where Djeparov exploded onto the Korean scene, demonstrating some of the form which saw him win the 2008 Asian Footballer of the Year after a sensational season with Uzbek side Bunyodkor. That year he scored 38 goals in 46 games, put in some fantastic performances in that season’s AFC Champions League, and starred for his national team.

Fans in Seoul still openly talk about some of the Uzbek’s legendary assists, and he is revered as one of the club’s all-time greats for his impact.  Still Djeparov will put all of that aside in Sunday’s Final: “Seoul connects with me good memories, I won both the championship and the Cup with Seoul and many fans are still warm to me. However, at the moment I am a Seongnam player and I want to lift the FA Cup over my head.”

Korean football is not known for its abundance of goals and despite the difference in league position, with Seoul chasing a top three ACL position, it promises to be a tight affair. Djeparov, who is the club’s top goalscorer could just prove the difference.

Speaking with Djeparov, the most compelling question is perhaps the most obvious: how did a young player from north-eastern eventually become one of Asia’s greatest players in modern times?

Growing up in Uzbekistan, Djeparov utilised his abundance of natural talent studying at a local sport school. At the age of 17, he made his debut forNavbakhor Namangan, a perennial mid table Uzbek team that served as a perfect environment for development.

“It was here I made my debut,” Djeparov explains, “and at the age of 20 I signed a five-year contract with Pakhtakor, where I spent five fantastic years. Eventually I left for FC Bunyodkor where I then won Asian Footballer of the Year”.

2011 AFC Annual Awards

Uzbekistan is not a nation known for its conveyor belt of footballing talent, with Djeparov himself arguably being the greatest player in the nation’s history. Yet in 2013, the nation almost achieved the seemingly impossible: qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It was agonisingly close, with the White Wolves losing out to by a single goal. Indeed, the Uzbeks would have been well on their way to the Copacabana had they not conceded early in their 5-1 win over Qatar. This came on the back of the 2011 Asian Cup, where the central Asian nation landed their best-ever fourth place finish, showing that they are well and truly on the right track in terms of rivalling Asia’s traditional football powerhouses.

Djeparov is unequivocal about the future of the game in his native land: “Football in Uzbekistan is extremely popular and the games infrastructure is developing fast,” he says. “Many clubs have recently opened new stadiums or renovated old ones with FC Bunyodkor investing in a massive new training facility.” When asked of the country’s up-and-coming players, he highlights tiny playmaker Jamshid Iskanderov, who impressed at the 2013 U20 World Cup as a player who can make a dent in Asia’s major leagues given the opportunity.

If pundits and punters alike can agree on something, perhaps it’s disappointment that Djeparov never found his way to the European continent. Asian football is all the better for his presence, but one can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like to see the left-footed playmaker dictate the the game in one of the slower-paced Mediterranean leagues. It may be a sign that while Asian football improves every year, it is still further behind to Europe than some would like to admit.

Asked to name the best player he ever played with – by no means an easy question for a player with 102 international caps and a career at the top of Asia – Rivaldo is the response. The Brazilian’s signing was a massive coup for Bunyodkor, and their $14 million investment was returned in spades as the 1999 FIFA World Player of the Year help lifted the club and Uzbek football’s profile to greater heights than ever before.

As the sun begins to set on 2014, Server Djeparov is approaching the end of one of the more colourful international careers in Asian football history. Never has a player from Central Asia impacted Asian football in the way he has. A classy Rolls Royce type of a player on the pitch and a gentleman off it, there is still perhaps one more chance for glory: January’s Asian Cup, where a title could put Uzbekistan -and Djeparov – firmly in the history books.