Despite being the world's largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan are a relative mystery on the global football scene. Since joining UEFA in 2002, the former Soviet republic have languished in the lower levels of the continent's footballing spectrum, with little impression made on the international stage. However, the nation were rewarded for their developmental aspirations with a big move in March's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
A nine-place rise, largely courtesy of their 1-1 draw against Lithuania in a friendly last month, catapulted Kazakhstan to 118 in the global pecking order, leapfrogging the likes of Liberia and Namibia. The ascendancy made them Europe's joint second best-movers for April alongside Moldova, behind only Scotland who soared 15 places to 22nd in the world. All the more impressive is the fact that the current placing is their highest since March of 2008, an accurate reflection of the consistent progress they have made over the last few years.
The result also saw their new Russian coach Yuri Krasnozhan get his tenure off to a good start. The former Lokomotiv Moscow and Terek Grozny manager was given the reins this February replacing Czech Miroslav Beranek, with the Lithuania friendly his first match in charge of Kazakhstan. Playing in Antalya, Turkey, the Kazaks were a goal down inside five minutes when Gediminas Vicius latched on to Mindaugas Kalonas' well-crafted corner to open the scoring. Krasnozhan's side upped the tempo and drew level on 68 minutes with 32-year-old midfielder Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev equalising with a powerful drive.
While the move came as a timely boost in the wake of their failed qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, it was by no means the first time the nation have made an impact on the global ladder. Kazakhstan began their move in the global ranking in 153rd place when they became affiliated to FIFA in 1994. They floundered in the first few years and sank to an all-time low of 166 in May, 1996.
They exploded into life the next year, pulling off a 34-place climb in a space of two months courtesy of their brilliant performances during Asia's 1998 FIFA World Cup France qualification from May to June in 1997. The Kazakhs kept an unblemished record as they progressed from a group which also featured continental giants Iraq as well as Pakistan. As a result, they gained a 25-place move up June's world ranking before another nine-place climb lifted them to 122nd.
Although Kazakhstan received the wooden spoon in the consequent final qualifying round in the latter months of the year, they did spring a surprise or two. Notably, they drew against the likes of Japan, Korea Republic and Uzbekistan respectively by the same 1-1 scoreline, while firing three unanswered goals past United Arab Emirates at home. Not surprisingly, they continued their ranking progress and finished the year with a memorable placing of 107th.
The following years saw Kazakhstan lose ground, slipping to 120 at the start of 2001. But that April's qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002 provided them with a chance to rebuild their credibility, and they remained undefeated to finish the group level with Iraq on points. Despite missing out on the top place and progression on goal difference, their unbeaten record saw them climb 18 places in that May's ranking to 106th. They maintained the momentum by reaching an all-time high of 98th at the end of the year with a goalless draw against Estonia handing them another eight-place award.
Kazakhstan have continued their efforts for development since relocating to the European fraternity twelve years ago. Under Dutch Arno Pijpers, the particularly impressed during the qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2008. They grabbed two unlikely wins - a 2-1 home defeat of Serbia and a solitary-goal victory in Armenia - while playing out four draws including twice sharing the spoils with Belgium. After reducing Portugal to a 2-1 narrow win, they climbed 12 places to 110th in November 2007.
Indeed, these were feats which boosted their hopes for the future, as former Kazakhstan Football Association President Adilbek Dzhaksybekov explained. "We've taken the initial steps," he remarked on that EURO qualifying campaign in an interview with FIFA.com, "the team showed they've gained experience and have a lot more belief. The team proved capable of keeping up with the likes of Portugal, Serbia and Belgium, so we can be confident for the future."