Surprise packages Tajikistan aim to keep dreaming at Asian Cup ahead of Jordan clash

Charismatic coach Petar Segrt has eyes on semi-final spot after remarkable run in Qatar

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Petar Segrt, Tajikistan’s charismatic coach, was keen to underline the enormity of his side’s remarkable run in Qatar.

“Everyone was laughing when we had dreams to reach the second round and quarter-finals, but nobody is laughing now,” Segrt said on Thursday, a day out from the Asian Cup last-eight clash with Jordan at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

“Tajikistan are the black horses of this tournament … and the black horses are still running.”

Indeed, they are, much to the majority’s surprise. Tournament debutants, Tajikistan have fast become fan favourites too, a status engendered not only by a place among the eight remaining teams in Asian football’s premier event.

It is a standing bolstered by the vigour of their play and the genuinely joyous celebrations that accompanied victories against Lebanon and the UAE; by the vivacity of Segrt, also.

Enigmatic and engaging, the Croat has been one of the highlights of the rescheduled 2023 continental competition, his media briefings or turns on the mic quickly becoming must-see TV.

For sure, the press-conference handshake, doled out to everyone in attendance, has endeared Segrt to journalists, officials and volunteers on the ground in Doha, but to a wider audience as well.

Yet it should not mask an astute tactician and a master motivator. At 57, Sergt’s journey to this juncture has been a road less travelled: after a modest playing career in the more-than-modest surroundings of the German lower leagues was cut short by injury, Sergt turned to coaching.

It has carried him latterly to Asia, first with clubs in Indonesia and then the national teams of Afghanistan and the Maldives.

When Sergt was appointed by Tajikistan two years ago, he resolved to build on foundations laid by predecessor Usmon Toshev by using his polar-opposite personality to garner nationwide support of the national team.

In turn, an outstanding generation has delivered both a debut Asian Cup and a drive to its latter stages. The squad in Qatar – at 99th in the Fifa standings, Tajikistan are comfortably the lowest-ranked side remaining – clocks in at an average age of little more than 25. All but nine of the 26 represent clubs in their homeland.

While the likes of goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, defenders Manuchekhr Safarov and Tabrez Islomov, and creative spark Alisher Dzhalilov have excelled in Qatar, Tajikistan’s progress has come from a courage in their convictions and a commitment to showcasing their country on the international stage.

Unity has been key. It is fortified by the absence of Manuchekhr Dzhalilov, Tajikistan’s all-time leading goalscorer, who was expected to lead the newcomers’ first foray at the tournament. However, the striker was diagnosed last summer with pancreatic cancer.

Dzhalilov’s presence has still been felt at the tournament; he was in the stands at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Sunday, cheering on his compatriots as they defeated the UAE, semi-finalists in 2015 and 2019, on penalties.

Tajikistan had summoned another gargantuan performance, rebounding from the despair of conceding late in injury-time and the drain of 30 additional minutes to stand tall in the shoot-out.

Just as he saluted the come-from-behind triumph against Lebanon that sealed a place in the knockouts, Sergt led his team towards their supporters at its conclusion, and fist-pumped a now-trademark celebration.

Although Tajikistan are no doubt wearied by their endeavours, Jordan would be wise to be wary. In November, they needed a 93rd-minute equaliser in Dushanbe to stave off defeat in their opening 2026 World Cup qualifier.

Jordan should not be taken aback by Tajikistan's capacity in Al Rayyan, even if the tournament’s surprise package, perhaps now everyone’s second team, are eying another upset.

“We feel like we've won the Asian Cup twice,” Sergt said in relation to the wins against Lebanon and the UAE. “We are ready to continue our dream. Everyone laughs at me, but I believe in my dream.

“We won't be happy with just playing a good game. We have a chance to go to the semi-finals. We believe in ourselves.”

Updated: February 02, 2024, 3:09 PM