Most football fans (and people) don’t know much about the Central Asian country of Tajikistan. Or at least, they didn’t until the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the Tajik football league being one of the only active football competitions in the world.
Now, the country’s football is free to watch online, and the national association has taken advantage of the situation by selling media rights in various parts of the world. The Tajik Vysshaya Liga’s clubs are all quickly becoming household names, and most of them now have English language fan accounts.
For those that are still unaware the Tajik domestic football calendar kicked off earlier this month, with the nation’s strongest side Istiklol, based in the capital of Dushanbe, beating their closest rivals, Khujand in the national Super Cup. Istiklol (Tajik for independence) is one of the biggest names in Central Asian football, and have won the national league six times in as many years. Since their inception 12 years ago, the club have won eight league titles, eight Tajik Cups, nine Super Cups and even won the 2012 edition of the now defunct AFC President’s Cup.
Istiklol have also reached the final of the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) a couple of times, but unfortunately lost on both occasions. In 2020, the team played in the AFC Champions League qualifiers for the second time, but couldn’t get past Al Ahli in the playoff round. Before the pandemic caused things to come to a halt, the club beat Khujand in their first group game of the AFC Cup.
To understand better how life is in Tajikistan, and how it feels being part of a club as glorious as Istiklol, we contacted 22-year-old midfielder Timur Dzhuraev, who currently plays at the club. Dzhuraev started off his career at the Rubin Kazan academy in Russia, but failed to get a first team appearance at the club.
He then moved to Estonia to play for Narva Trans, and did well at the club, making 24 first team appearances during his time there. After a year in Estonia, Timur returned home to play for Istiklol, and has been at the Dushanbe-based club for three years now. This season, he played the full 90 minutes in the Super Cup, and has also featured in three of Istiklol’s league games so far.
We’d like to thank Timur for agreeing to the interview, we thoroughly enjoyed our chat with him. Here’s the interview in full:
Heart of Football: What does it feel like being watched by the world so closely? Did you ever dream of a day when the Tajikistani league would be the centre of the globe’s attraction?
Dzhuraev: Being the centre of attraction is the dream of any football player, and I am no different. It is also a great opportunity for me to prove myself and impress foreign clubs.
HoF: You used to play for Rubin Kazan in Russia, how was your time there and would you like to return someday?
Dzhuraev: Rubin was my first club, and I have many good memories associated with them. Everything there was at a high level. As for returning, I can’t give a definite answer. At the moment, I am more than satisfied at Istiklol; we have an excellent squad, coaching staff and leadership.
HoF: Most of our readers might not know much about Tajikistan. How would you describe your country to them?
Dzhuraev: Tajikistan is a country with a rich and ancient culture, our history goes back thousands of years. The people here are kind and helpful. The country is developing at a high speed, and we have a great future.
HoF: What do you think Tajik football needs to improve and reach a higher level?
Dzhuraev: Tajik football is developing rapidly, many experts agree with this. We have a strong national team, many talented young footballers and competitive clubs. It’s only a matter of time before we reach the next level.
HoF: What are your long and short term goals as a football player?
Dzhuraev: The goal for this season is to win the Tajikistani Championship and the AFC Cup. I don’t want to think about what happens after that, time will tell.
HoF: What is the best part of playing at a club like Istiklol?
HoF: You’ve also played football in Estonia. What differences have you noticed between Estonian, Tajik and Russian football?
Dzhuraev: It’s clear that Russian football is on a different level. However, if we compare Estonia and Tajikistan in terms of football, we can say that everything is on the same level. If you compare clubs, I can confidently say that Istiklol is on a much higher level than the Estonian club that I played for.
HoF: What would you say to young footballers aspiring to become professionals?
Dzhuraev: Playing football and loving football is everything. After all, it only costs a footballer little to get good press and get into the national team. If he stops growing, then it is detrimental to him.
The main thing is not to be content with what has been achieved, but to move forward. You need to try and get into a good foreign club. With great desire and maximum work, everything is possible in football.