Uzbeks may join UEFA after World Cup 'robbery'

October 21, 2005

MOSCOW, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Uzbekistan may apply to join European soccer's governing body UEFA after what the Central Asian state called an injust decision robbed it of a chance of reaching the World Cup finals.

'We, in Uzbekistan, always wanted to be a part of UEFA and after the latest events this process will certainly gain a new momentum,' Alisher Nikimbayev, a senior official in the Uzbekistan Football Federation, told Reuters in an interview.

'What FIFA had done to us in regards of replaying our qualifier with Bahrain was very unjust. We feel very strongly about that.'

Uzbekistan beat Bahrain 1-0 in the first leg of their Asian Zone World Cup qualifier play-off in Tashkent on Sept. 3 but FIFA cancelled the result and ordered a replay following a mistake by Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida.

FIFA, world soccer's ruling body, ruled that Yoshida had made a technical error in disallowing a converted Uzbekistan penalty and awarding Bahrain a free kick.

The two sides drew 1-1 in a rescheduled match on Oct. 8 before Bahrain held the Uzbeks 0-0 in the second leg in Manama four days later to advance on the away goal rule.

'We have been robbed,' Nikimbayev said. 'First, we were robbed of a penalty, then they wiped away our 1-0 win which would have been enough for us to reach the play-off.

'Not a single person in the whole stadium understood what happened after the ref disallowed the penalty.'

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) suspended Yoshida indefinitely for his blunder.

'We feel sorry for Uzbekistan because they have been doubly punished, once for the penalty incident and then for having to replay the match they won,' said AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam.

Nikimbayev pointed the finger at FIFA for insisting on the replay. 'Unfortunately, we don't have enough proof to say that FIFA would rather see a rich Arab state like Bahrain play in the World Cup than having us there,' he said.

'For us it was the biggest chance to play in the World Cup finals and probably the last one in many years to come.

'I don't think we would get another chance like that for many years because most of our top senior players, back from the Soviet days, will now retire and it would take years before we could produce a new crop of good young players.'

Bahrain face CONCACAF's Trinidad & Tobago in another play-off next month and the winner will advance to next year's World Cup finals in Germany.

Nikimbayev said Uzbek soccer would greatly benefit from joining UEFA.

'It would be a tremendous opportunity. We could raise our game to a new level,' he said.

'Playing in the (European) Champions League would be a great boost for our game and would benefit us financially.

'All our fans would love it. Just imagine having Real Madrid, Chelsea or Man United come here.'

Nisimbayev said geography should not be a problem, pointing to their Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Australia as examples. 'If Australians can join the Asian confederation and Kazakhstan become a UEFA member why not us?'

Kazakhstan became the newest member of UEFA in 2002 while FIFA's executive committee approved Australia's move from the Oceania confederation to the AFC earlier this year. Israel, once a AFC member, has also been playing in Europe for a long time.

Nisimbayev said it was a political decision to join the AFC.

'Right after the Soviet break-up we had a choice of joining either UEFA or AFC,' he said.

'I remember (UEFA president Lennart) Johansson invited all 15 former Soviet republics to join UEFA way back in 1992.

'Uzbek soccer officials wanted it, our fans wanted it but we just couldn't convince our politicians back then,' he added.

'Well, maybe now is a good time to have this issue settled.'