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Managed by a Croatian coach, 106th ranked Tajikistan is on brink of Asian Cup history

Despite not being a high-profile side, Tajikistan has appeared as a dark horse of the Asian Cup. Nobody knows what next the Persian Lions would do as they are just a match away from securing a spot in the semifinals.

Managed by a Croatian coach, 106th ranked Tajikistan is on brink of Asian Cup history

Tajikistan coach Petar Segrt at the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 30 Jan 2024 2:04 PM GMT

When a few of his players decided to sit on the sidelines in the dugout before the tense shootout against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the pre-quarterfinals on Sunday, long-haired Petar Segrt ordered his players to get back on their feet and stand shoulder to shoulder, displaying a show of unity.

Segrt's effort was symbolic but it had its desired effect as Tajikistan won the shootout 5-3 against the UAE in the Round of 16 of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.

Tajikistan may well be ranked 106th in the world, but at the ongoing Asian Cup, they fared far better than their ranking would do.

Despite not being a high-profile side, the central Asian country has appeared as a dark horse of the tournament and has now found itself among the top eight teams in Asia. Nobody knows what next the Persian Lions would do.

Playing at the continental championship for the first time, Tajikistan shocked many, delivering the upset of the tournament by showing the UAE the door to exit in the pre-quarterfinals.

En route to the knockouts, Tajikistan registered a comeback win over Lebanon and nearly beat the UAE in regulation time before knocking it out in the shootout, cementing his growing stature in the tournament.

While it is one of the best performances for a debutant at the AFC Asian Cup, Tajikistan will aim to prolong its presence in the tournament as it goes up against Jordan in the quarterfinal on February 2.

At the core of this unexpected rise of Tajikistan is a not-so-high-profile Croatian coach, Segrt, who is nearly doing everything to take the pressure off his young team, boasting an average age of 24.62 years that made it the second youngest side in this Asian Cup. And his players gleefully obliged by delivering the most fascinating results for a minnow at the pinnacle of Asian football.

“We are among the eight best teams in Asia,” said Segrt as his side prepares to face Jordan, a team ranked 87th in the world but punched above its weight by beating former champion Iraq and Malaysia, and held South Korea to a 2-2 draw.

Segrt is well-travelled coach, but he never managed a top side. His experience is more in managing depleted sides such as Georgia, Afghanistan, and Maldives, countries which are not only poor in football but also lack a culture for the sport.

Segrt, who dealt with hardships as a child and had to change citizenship multiple times, manages things with humility.

He would shake hands with everyone in the pressroom before addressing the media, and he has been following this practice for the past 27 years out of sheer respect for everyone.

“I come from an impoverished (background), a very difficult situation in old Yugoslavia and Germany. I learned to respect everybody because it was very difficult for me as a child,” he told the media.

“I never forget where I come from… I think I have an honest soul, this is my most important thing," he added.

His style of managing Tajikistan has worked wonders for a team that has so many young players.

Talking about his coach, Tajikistan defender Zoir Dzhuraboev, said, "He is very positive every time, very kind. But he knows when he has to be friendly and kind, and when he has to be hard and strict towards us."

Since the tournament got underway, nobody gave a chance to Tajikistan due to its dismal ranking. But as the tournament unfolded, the Tajiks proved everyone wrong and disrupted all predictions.

In its first match, Tajikistan suffered its only defeat - a 0-1 loss against host and defending champion Qatar.

As Segrt has now achieved the biggest moment of his career by taking Tajikistan to the knockouts, he, now says, his team is the dark horse and its unique feature is its unforeseen ability to pull off surprises.

“We are now the dark horses in this tournament. Nobody knows how far we can go. I have no limits for my players, they’ve surprised me again,” the 57-year-old coach said.

On his part, Segrt, a philosophical coach, won the hearts of fans and journalists with his appearance and showmanship. It also helped his side to stay away from the limelight.

Playing with no renowned players, Tajikistan has an advantage. It is a team of equals and drew little attention from the masses, not even from its people, prior to its magnificent performances.

As the team has started getting the attention of the world now, Segrt looked wary and deployed his tactic of drawing attention off his side with his on-field antics so that his players could focus on the match and give their best on the pitch.

On Sunday, when his players were busy celebrating the win, Segrt was the first person to console and hug the dejected UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa, who was leaning back in the post broken.

When asked whether his conduct helped his team, Segrt said, "It is like when you have children, you must wait for the right moment."

As his players are just a step away from turning their impressive journey into a miracle by earning a spot in the semifinals, Segrt wants his young team to absorb the pressure and manage the media glare.

“Now they are ready… I will still try to put all the pressure on me, but they must work like adults and do it themselves," he added.

After the Asian Cup, Segrt's contract with the Persian Lions will expire, but his commitment to the team remains as he regards Tajikistan as 'my first country'.

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