In 1960, the first European Championship was held in France. Four countries participated in the inaugural tournament: France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. Hosts France was, on paper, the best side: two years earlier, they advanced to the World Cup semifinals, and they had one of the world’s best forwards in Just Fontaine.
However, the Soviet Union lifted the first European Championship, kicking off a decade of near-dominance in the sport. From 1960 to 1970, they reached the knockouts of the World Cup three times (including the semifinals) and reached the finals and semifinals of the Euros.
As the national team improved, so did the league. The best players competed for the Soviet First League, at the time one of the strongest leagues in the world. However, while many of the league’s most successful teams were Russian, there were many successful sides elsewhere.
Ukraine and Georgia had some of the league’s best sides, with both playing a big part in the national team as well. However, occasionally sides broke through from other parts of the country. Pakhtakor Tashkent did just that — and after the fall of the Soviet Union, they have become one of Asia’s most successful sides.
Pakhtakor was founded in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, in 1956. The club’s name, which means “cotton grower,” was chosen because of the country’s cotton-picking industry. Four years later, the year the Soviet Union won the Euros, Pakhtakor was promoted to the Soviet Top League.
In 1962, they had one of their most successful seasons, finishing sixth. Six years later, Pakhtakor reached the final of the Soviet Cup, narrowly losing to Torpedo Moscow. Along the way, they overcame many of the Soviet Union’s top sides, including Dinamo Batumi and Shakhtar Donetsk. However, they were relegated to the second tier not long after.
Pakhtakor bounced back and forth between the first and second tiers over the next few years, even winning the Soviet First League (the second tier) in 1972.
In 1979, Pakhtakor was on its way to face Dinamo Minsk. Unfortunately, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was going to Crimea and the Soviets attempted to clear the airways before his flight. Two planes, including one carrying Pakhtakor’s squad, collided, resulting in 178 deaths.
Seventeen members of the squad died in what remains one of the sport’s worst disasters. The club was rebuilt with academy players and replacements, but the team’s memory lives on. The club still holds Memorial Tournaments to honor the members who perished.
In 1982, Pakhtakor had a strong season, finishing sixth and just five points away from UEFA Cup qualification. They were led by striker Andrei Yakubik, who led the league in goals, with 23. He stayed at the club until 1985, and he remains one of the club’s most important players in history.
Pakhtakor again alternated between the first and second tiers, taking place in the final season of the Soviet Top League in 1991. However, at the end of the season, it became clear that the Soviet league was falling apart, and, soon after, the Soviet Union dissolved.
When Uzbekistan declared independence, the country formed a new league. Pakhtakor took part in the inaugural season and won — sort of. They finished equal on points and were named co-champions despite having a better goal differential than co-champions Neftchi Fergana.
In 1998, Pakhtakor won the league individually, finishing six points clear of Neftchi Fergana. By then, Neftchi had won four titles, two other sides (Navbahor Namangan and MHSK Tashkent) would win one, and, by the end of the century, Do’stlik would win twice.
The turn of the century was when Uzbek soccer really got interesting. Within five years, champions Do’stlik and MHSK Tashkent went bust, and new champions started to emerge. Well, not immediately.
In 2001, Neftchi Farg’ona once again won the league, making it the club’s fifth title. Pakhtakor finished a distant second, although they won the Uzbek Cup for the third time in the club’s history (they had in 1993 and 1997). This is where it gets complicated.
From 2002 to 2007, Pakhtakor won the league six times in a row. They impressed in the Asian Champions League, reaching the semifinals in consecutive seasons. Pakhtakor also found some gems in their academy: in 2006, Uzbek legend Odil Ahmedov debuted at the age of 18.
Just as quickly as the Golden Era started, it stopped: new rivals Bunyodkor, formed in 2005, won the league for four straight seasons thanks to new investment. This included the purchase of Brazil legend Rivaldo, who finished as the league’s top scorer in 2009.
In 2012, Pakhtakor overcame Bunyodkor, before slumping to fourth the next season. Pakhtakor recovered, finishing first in the next two seasons. Then, from 2016 to 2018, Lokomotiv Tashkent won the league, with Pakhtakor finishing third, fifth, and second respectively.
Now, however, Pakhtakor is back at the top of Uzbekistan’s league, winning the last four titles. This is largely because of the arrival of journeyman striker Dragan Ceran: in his four seasons with the club, he’s finished as the top scorer each year.
Pakhtakor continued to perform in the Uzbek Cup, winning it ten more times, including seven in a row. So, to recap: since the turn of the century, Pakhtakor won 11 cups (13 overall) and 13 league titles (15 overall). Oh, and they broke the record for most consecutive Asian Champions League participations, with 11 (since beaten by Al Hilal).
With the Uzbekistan Super League kicking off in March, Pakhtakor has its eyes on the league title once again. However, the club is missing just one thing separating it from Asia’s elite clubs: a Champions League title.
While Pakhtakor is eliminated from the current Champions League season, they are building a strong side ahead of the next tournament. The club brought in multiple players and has several talented prospects (including Abbosbek Fayzullaev, who beat Umarali Rakhmonaliev for the top young player award last year). Somehow, the future looks even brighter than the past.
Image Courtesy of Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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