Asian Icons: Server Djeparov of Uzbekistan
Few in Asia can boast a resume that comes anywhere close to rivalling that of Uzbekistan’s Server Djeparov, the two-time AFC Player of the Year who on Tuesday celebrates his 35th birthday and becomes the latest player to feature in our ‘Asian Icons’ series.
Asian Icon: Server Djeparov
Clubs: Navbahor Namangan, Pakhtakor, Bunyodkor, FC Seoul, Al Shabab, Seongnam FC, Ulsan Hyundai, Lokomotiv, Esteghlal, Sepahan (loan)
International Appearances (Goals): 124 (25)
AFC Player of the Year: 2008, 2011
With more caps than any other Uzbek player, Djeparov has represented his country with distinction since making his international debut in 2002.
A semi-final appearance in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup is an undoubted highlight, while three times coming agonisingly close to FIFA World Cup qualification rank among the low points of a glittering career.
In his homeland, the midfielder has won the Uzbek League and Cup with three different clubs, and he has also enjoyed success elsewhere in Asia, most notably in Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia.
Now in the twilight of his career, with Tehran-based side Esteghlal, Djeparov is one of only two players – the other being Japan legend Hidetoshi Nakata – to have won the AFC Player of the Year on two occasions since the confederation adopted the award in 1994.
Having begun his playing days with Navbahor Namangan, Djeparov was acquired by Tashkent giants Pakhtakor in 2001 in a move that sparked a period of sustained success for both player and club.
It had been four years since Pakhtakor were last crowned champions of Uzbekistan, but the team went on to claim the league-cup double in six successive seasons between 2002 and 2007.
In 2004, Djeparov helped Uzbekistan reach the knockout rounds of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, before a penalty shootout quarter-final defeat to Bahrain, who would also defeat them on away goals in the final round of Asian qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
But the Central Asians were now mixing it with the big boys on the continent and would again advance to the last eight in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, before this time going down 2-1 to Saudi Arabia.
Bunyodkor and the Brazilian influence
The following year, Djeparov was on the move again, this time joining Tashkent rivals and highly ambitious Bunyodkor, where the 2008 and 2009 league titles followed, with his first season bringing another double.
These were heady days in Tashkent as FIFA World Cup winner Rivaldo was brought in to much fanfare, while Djeparov would play under Brazilian coaches Zico and Luis Felipe Scolari during his time at the club.
The midfielder captained the side as they advanced to the semi-finals of the 2008 AFC Champions League, before defeat to Adelaide United ended hopes of becoming Uzbekistan’s first continental champions.
His performances, though, had not gone unnoticed as Djeparov was named 2008 AFC Player of the Year to become the first winner from the Central Asian country.
A move abroad then came in 2010 when he headed east to join FC Seoul and promptly helped his new team win their first K-League Classic title in a decade and his ninth league crown in a row.
Uzbek success; individual accolade
Back on the international scene, 2011 proved a huge success, with Djeparov scoring twice in the group stage in Qatar to captain the national team to a third successive AFC Asian Cup quarter-final appearance.
This time, the run would go on as the Uzbeks overcame Jordan 2-1 before ultimately losing 6-0 to Australia and then finishing fourth after a 3-2 reversal against Korea Republic in the third place play-off.
The end of the year, though, would see Djeparov’s strong performances and impressive leadership recognised once more as he picked up the AFC Player of the Year award for the second time.
The biggest disappointment in Djeparov’s career came in qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, when Uzbekistan missed out on an automatic place at the tournament due to a one-goal inferior goal difference to Korea Republic, despite a 5-1 victory over Qatar in the final round of fixtures.
A third-place finish in Group A did, however, set up a play-off date with Jordan and Djeparov’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Amman secured a positive result to take back to Tashkent.
Uzbekistan went into the return fixture knowing a win would line up a clash with the fifth-placed side in CONMEBOL – Uruguay – for the right to appear at the World Cup in Brazil.
But after another 1-1 draw, the Central Asians would go down 9-8 in the penalty shootout in a game that Djeparov later described as the worst moment of his career.
Club triumphs continue
Having left Seoul in 2011, Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia was the next port of call and yet another league title followed in 2012, before two more years in Korea – with Seongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai – brought a Korean FA Cup with the former.
Djeparov returned home in 2016 to join a third of the trio of Tashkent giants, Lokomotiv, who he would help win a first-ever Uzbek League and Cup the same year.
On the continent, Lokomotiv would also impress, as Djeparov teed up both goals in a 2-1 win that ousted two-time Asian champions Al Hilal in the last 16 to reach the AFC Champions League quarter-finals for the first time, before defeating to eventual runners-up Al Ain.
Uzbekistan: The latter years
After again losing out to arch nemesis Korea Republic in the last eight of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Djeparov and Uzbekistan’s next target was the Road to Russia.
With the midfielder now well into his thirties, the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign offered one final chance to reach the biggest stage of all.
Uzbekistan started well, with three wins from their first four games putting them in a strong position, before a miserable run saw just three points accumulated from their ensuing five fixtures.
The Blue Wolves did, however, go into their final Group A outing knowing that a win over the Koreans in Tashkent would secure a maiden FIFA World Cup qualification.
But a scoreless draw proved the worst possible outcome as Korea qualified, while Syria’s late equaliser in Iran saw the Uzbeks pipped to third place and a play-off spot at the last.
A final hurrah?
At the beginning of 2017, the midfielder moved to the Islamic Republic of Iran to team up with two-time Asian champions Esteghlal, where he will look to achieve a first AFC Champions League success in 2018.
And in just over a year’s time, Uzbekistan will take to the field at the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 where, should Djeparov still be turning out for his country, he will be given one final shot at glory in a career that has already brought so much.