The most popular football clubs: Central Asia
Long before their participation in Asian competition, clubs from Central Asia had developed a proud and passionate football culture. Clubs from the region played, and regularly beat, some of the most famous names in Soviet football, and the tradition has continued with some of the continent’s outstanding players emerging from the region.
But which club stirs the passion like no other? Taking into consideration factors such as on-field success and off-field interest, we have selected 10 clubs from four nations. It is now up to you to vote for your favourite club.
A powerhouse of Uzbek football both in the Soviet era and in more modern times, no Central Asian club has managed to deliver success across generations like Pakhtakor. The club twice finished in the top six of the powerful Soviet top flight, and became the first Central Asian club to reach the Soviet Cup final in 1968.
Tragedy struck the club when a special generation of players was lost to an air disaster in 1979, but Pakhtakor have remained a force in modern times, winning a record 13 Uzbekistan Super League titles and twice reaching the semi-finals in Asia.
Established in just 2005, Bunyodkor are one of the newer clubs on the list, but five Uzbekistan Super League titles and two AFC Champions League semi-final appearances are a testament to their success.
Household names like Djeparov, Kapadze and Shomurodov have starred for the Tashkent club, but the most famous footballer to ever wear the blue shirt is Rivaldo. The Brazilian World Cup winner won three consecutive titles for the club in the late 2000s.
Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
Founded in 1997, Dordoi initially represented the city of Naryn, but they are now the Bishkek-based powerhouse of the Kyrgyz Premier League, boasting several of the best players in the country and winning trophy after trophy.
They’ve won 12 league titles in the last 17 years and are the only club from Kyrgyz Republic to have won continental silverware, lifting the AFC President’s Cup in both 2006 and 2007.
Osh, Kyrgyz Republic
The pride of Kyrgyz Republic’s south, Alay were founded in 1960 and have taken the city of Osh all the way to intercontinental competition.
The club never reached the top levels of Soviet football, but their most successful era came in the mid 2010s, when they won four Kyrgyz Republic league titles from 2013 to 2017 and participated in five editions of the AFC Cup.
Founded in the mid-1960s, Ravshan – meaning ‘bright’ in Tajik language - is based in the Khatlon region of southern Tajikistan and has a passionate and loyal following in the area.
One of the first Central Asian clubs to participate in continental competition when they made their Asian Cup Winners’ Cup debut in 1994, Ravshan went on to win league titles in 2012 and 2013, and just this season added another Tajik Cup and earned promotion back to the top level of league football in the nation.
Hailing from the south of Uzbekistan, Nasaf have never won their domestic league, but have a strong following and an especially proud history in Asian competitions.
They went all the way to the semi-finals of the Asian Club Championship in 2002, but Nasaf’s finest hour came when they won the 2011 AFC Cup final against Kuwait SC, with a packed Markaziy Stadium roaring their local heroes to a 2-1 win, making Nasaf the first and only Central Asian club to win the competition.
The modern football power club in Tajikistan, FC Istiklol have little other than success since their November 2007 establishment, winning nine top division league titles including the last seven in a row.
AFC President’s Cup winners in 2012, Istiklol hosted AFC Cup finals in 2015 and 2017 but, in front of 20,000-strong crowds, they fell to narrow 1-0 defeats on both occasions.
Meaning “golden age” in Turkmen language, Altyn Asyr have become the most dominant club in the modern era of Turkmen football, recently overtaking FC Kopetdag as the Yokary Liga’s most successful club.
Featuring the bulk of the Turkmenistan national team, 2020 saw Altyn Asyr seal an unprecedented seventh successive league title. They also became the first club from Turkmenistan to reach the AFC CupfFinal in 2018, with the Ashgabat club hopeful of become AFC Champions League regulars in the near future.
Founded as Tekstilshchik in the 1970s, the club later known as Navbahor rose from regional competition in Namangan to eventually reach the Soviet First League in 1991, and later the semi-finals of the 1999/2000 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup.
From Uzbekistan’s east, Navbahor have remained a strongly supported club, becoming league champions in 1996 and finishing in the top three 10 times since the nation became independent.
Located in the north of Tajikistan and sandwiched between the borders of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz Republic is Istaravshan, a footballing hotbed and the final team in our list.
A club in Istaravshan has existed since 1938, achieving particular success in the Tajik SSR championships of the 1980s, and while the modern iteration of the local club has had a complicated history – including spending time away from competition due to bankruptcy – Istaravshan are now once again a top level club, and one which retains significant support.