Tajikistan’s national football team made headlines at the ongoing AFC Asian Cup in Qatar by reaching the quarterfinal stage of the tournament. For Tajikistan’s “Lions”, this was their first appearance at a major international competition, a test they passed with flying colors. Shortly before the match against Jordan in the quarterfinals, the president of Tajikistan’s Football Federation, Rustam Emomali, met with the players in Qatar’s capital Doha, praising their historic achievement and highlighting how they have won “the hearts of millions of fans in Tajikistan and beyond.”
Here is a YouTube with Rustam Emomali's meeting with the national team.
Emomali’s trip to Doha and meeting with the players was symbolic of Tajik football’s development over the last decade. The national team’s sensational performance is as much reason for Emomali’s to celebrate it is for anyone else. The rise of football in Tajikistan has thus far gone hand-in-hand with the rise of Emomali, who is expected to take over the current president and his father Emomali Rahmon as the next president.
Up until this tournament, Tajikistan had failed to reach the final stage of any major international football competition since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The lackluster state of Tajik football started changing when the sport came under Emomali’s attention.
In 2007, he co-founded FC Istiklol, a football club based in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, which has set records for the most wins of the Tajik Premier League, Tajik Cup, and the Tajik Super Cup, dominating all the domestic tournaments. Emomali captained the team and played as a striker, leading fans to believe FC Istiklol received preferential treatment from referees and riot in protest of dubious refereeing calls in favor of the club.
Emomali ended his football career in 2012 when he was appointed president of Tajikistan's Football Federation. Since then he has risen up in the government ranks by becoming the mayor of Dushanbe and chairman of the upper house of parliament. In addition to occupying these two high-level government posts simultaneously, Emomali still leads the football federation.
His emotional and financial investment into the Tajik football was on display after the Lions’ sensational win over the UAE team in the playoffs.
Here is an Instagram video with the Tajik players’ celebration of the win against the UAE team.
Emomali announced that the players will get USD 450,000 prize money for qualifying for the playoffs and winning against the UAE and promised USD 200,000 more for the win in the quarterfinals. The Lions’ fairytale run ended with a 1–0 loss to Jordan. Regardless of this result, there was an unanimous public endorsement of the team as national heroes, who exceeded all expectations.
The national team’s heroics will breathe confidence and optimism into everyone implementing the national football development program called “Orzu-2026” (Dream-2026). Adopted in 2022, it sets itself the ambitious goal of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. After the team’s sensational outing at the AFC Asian Cup, there is a palpable excitement and belief that the goal may be within reach.