Son hits winner as South Korea beat Australia to reach Asian Cup semis

Meet Petar Segrt: The coach who has transformed Tajikistan into shock Asian Cup contenders

Petar Segrt is a man who is not easily shaken. From deciding to remain as Georgia national team coach when Russian tanks rolled into the country in 2008, to coaching in Afghanistan, Segrt loves a challenge.

His latest endeavor is arguably the most unlikely yet. Returning to the former Soviet Union, Segrt has not only taken Tajikistan — a country with very little previous football pedigree — to its first Asian Cup, he has masterminded an unlikely journey to the quarterfinals.

As often happens, the Asian Cup has been characterized by beautiful unpredictability this year. The likes of China and Saudi Arabia have already been eliminated, while Palestine progressed to the tournament’s last 16 despite most players’ families being affected by the conflict and suffering in Gaza.

Palestine’s fairytale was ended at the Round of 16 by hosts Qatar, but Tajikistan’s goes on after a dramatic penalty shootout victory over the United Arab Emirates. It led to dancing in the streets of the capital Dushanbe, and dancing in the team hotel in Doha.

“These players are the heroes and really it is amazing what they are doing,” Segrt told Arab News ahead of Tajikistan’s quarterfinal clash with Jordan. “They even had me dancing with them — I’m happy no one recorded it.

“If you visited Tajikistan before you would see only people watching Barcelona or Chelsea or Manchester City. Everybody wearing Messi and Ronaldo shirts. Nobody cared about the national team.

“In these last days I have been sent so many and I see children are wearing the shirts of our team. Can you imagine this? We are making an impact.”

Tajikistan had failed to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup in five previous attempts but made it to their maiden major tournament after topping a qualifying group that included Singapore, Myanmar and neighbors Kyrgyzstan.

In continental club competition, too, the Central Asian nation has been improving in recent years, with current Tajik champions Istiklol appearing in the AFC Champions League group stage for the third successive time this season.

In Qatar, Tajikistan drew with China and lost to the hosts before a dramatic 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Lebanon secured a spot in the last 16. Just making it through the group was a remarkable achievement on their tournament debut but then Tajikistan stunned the UAE to reach the last eight.

Next up for Tajikistan is a quarterfinal against Jordan at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayaan on Friday. Just like Segrt’s side, Jordan’s Asian Cup campaign has also been characterized by fighting spirit — epitomized by a sensational last-16 victory over Iraq in which two goals in stoppage time secured a 3-2 triumph.

“We know from the match against Iraq that they will keep going right to the end,” Segrt said. “They were 2-1 down and changed the game in two minutes when it had seemed Iraq would go through.

“They are dangerous and I think have the mentality to make something from nothing something very fast. They could have just settled to take that match into extra-time, but they wanted to finish the game.

“Jordan is a very clever team, with a very good coach and we must respect this. But we will give them a good fight. If we lose the match, I will be the most disappointed man but I know we have done something special here at the Asian Cup.”

Segrt has almost three decades of coaching experience, working across Europe and Asia — from the Bundesliga to the Indonesian Premier League. With Tajikistan, the Croatian has focused on bringing young players through and his squad is one of the greenest at the Asian Cup.

“I feel like I guided the team and used my experience to help them survive the group stage but now the responsibility is more with the players,” Segrt said. “It is their pressure now, not mine.

“That’s why I was so happy to beat UAE — they have shown me that they are men, not boys, and are capable of big things. This match was unbelievable. We conceded in the 95th-minute and usually this would leave a team mentally dead but we came back.

“I love these players. We trained these penalties before the game on Monday but this is a different pressure in front of 40,000 people. They showed they can handle it.”

Segrt insists he was confident once the match made it to a shootout because of his faith in goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov, whose save from Caio proved the difference between the sides.

Russia-born Yatimov had done it before for Tajikistan, thwarting two spot-kicks when Tajikistan beat Malaysia in the final of the 2022 King’s Cup tournament in Thailand.

“I know we have a goalkeeper who is a penalty killer,” Segrt said. “I knew he would save one, but I just didn’t know how many we would score.

“We should have won in 90 minutes, we should have lost in the 30 minutes of extra-time but then my feeling changed again before the penalties. I really believed.”

With a FIFA ranking of 106, making them the 19th best team in Asia, few others would have believed that Tajikistan could make it to the quarterfinals. Now Segrt insists the pressure is off.

“After the game against Lebanon, we won the Asian Cup,” the Croatian coach said. “Tajikistan won the Asian Cup when we got through the group. I saw this on the field, celebrating with my players — they jumped on me, they broke my glasses.

“Then we beat UAE and won the Asian Cup again. We have won it two times and the celebrations have been unbelievable. There was so much dancing at the hotel, the players didn’t need any fitness training the next day.

“This for me is football and I hope for these crazy players that they can dance again for one night.”

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