Copy of 2023-11-15T081428Z_1634157920_RC2JD4AJC15A_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-WORLDCUP-UZBEKISTAN-1700060187781
Srecko Katanec says he is no fan of the decision to increase the number of teams at the 2026 World Cup. Image Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong: Uzbekistan coach Srecko Katanec says he is no fan of the decision to increase the number of teams at the 2026 World Cup, even if it boosts his side’s chances of appearing at the tournament for the first time.

After the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan’s national team have failed to come through Asian qualifying for the showpiece event seven times.

They launch another bid on Thursday when they face Turkmenistan in Ashgabat, and with Asia having eight guaranteed slots at the 48-team finals in Canada, Mexico and the United States, the ‘White Wolves’ are more confident than ever of reaching the event.

Katanec, though, wants his side to qualify by virtue of their quality.

“If you are good you will qualify,” the Slovenian told Reuters recently. “If you are not good then you look for chances like this, increasing the teams.

“So then increase the World Cup to 150 or involve all the teams from the world. I prefer less teams, more quality and you have to work.” The Uzbeks went closest to qualification for the 2006 World Cup when a controversial playoff loss to Bahrain cost them the chance of reaching the finals in Germany.

Qualifying spots

Since then Uzbekistan have fallen well short of Asia’s leading nations, with Japan, Australia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran largely monopolising the qualifying spots.

Sustained success at youth level, however, has given fans hope with Uzbekistan’s recent record only surpassed by the Japanese and Koreans, the regional leaders in development.

That has also seen successive squads exposed to the global finals, with Uzbekistan twice — in 2013 and 2015 — reaching the quarter-finals of the under-20 World Cup and advancing to the last 16 of the most recent event in Argentina.

“The World Cup is our target, our main dream,” says Ravshan Khaydarov, who coached Uzbekistan to the Asian under-20 title in March. “Not only the players, but our people and our country want to participate at the World Cup.

Invest in coaching staff

“We’re working towards that, step-by-step and developing. At the moment our country already supports us but qualifying for the World Cup would change everything. Our teenagers, our youth would play even more than now.” While Katanec is not a fan of the expanded finals he acknowledges that raising the number of spots may actually intensify the qualification battle.

“Maybe it will be more difficult because more teams will see a chance to go there and maybe they will invest more in coaching staff and all of the system,” he said.

“Before, to win against the smaller teams, like Cambodia or Maldives, 10 or 15 years ago you win easily, but now they bring coaches from Italy and other places and they work hard.”