Kyrgyzstan sent shockwaves across Asia as the Central Asians emerged the continent's best movers by climbing 16 places up December's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 108. While it marked the former Soviet republic's all-time high in the global pecking order, the achievement is all the more impressive given a turbulent month for Asian teams as the likes of Iran, Japan and Korea Republic all lost ground.
The driving force behind Kyrgyzstan's unprecedented move was, of course, their unexpected home defeat of Jordan in the recent qualifying fixture for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The visitors were the undisputed favourites heading to Bishkek following back-to-back wins against Australia and Tajikistan, results which left the Hashemite Kingdom topping Group B a point clear of the Socceroos. Having held the Jordanians to a goalless draw away, however, the home side entered the re-meeting eyeing a real upset.
The game began as expected, with Jordan dominating in the early stages. The home team, meanwhile, defended gallantly and threatened on the counter-attack. The breakthrough came three minutes after the restart when Serbian-based midfielder Anton Zemlianukhin scoring the only goal as Kyrgyzstan pulled off what was arguably the matchday's biggest surprise.
The spirited triumph maintained Kyrgyzstan's hold on third behind Australia and Jordan, in a group which also features Tajikistan and Bangladesh. Kyrgyzstan’s primary aim now is focused on collecting a place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying third round.
Their move in the global pecking order was instigated by a resounding 3-1 opening victory against hosts Bangladesh in June, a result which helped catapult them 20 places to 157 in the following month's World Ranking. Despite narrowly losing to Australia 2-1 at home, Kyrgyzstan bounced back to draw against Jordan as they moved nine places to 146 in October.
A 2-2 against neighbouring Tajikistan followed the same month, before they again came on the top in the return against Bangladesh winning 2-0 at home. They rose 22 places last month to 124, before the ground-breaking move this month sent them to an all-time high. "Thanks to the team’s success against big opponents, we are gaining increased attention from across our country," Semetei Sultanov, the President of the Football Federation of Kyrgyz Republic (FFKR) said. “We are getting noticed more by the government, the media and the fans, and there is renewed interest in our players by foreign clubs."
"Everyone sees our improved results, and not just the results but the way we play," he added. “We had been sleeping for a long time when everyone was working. So it was time to get back into the race."
As the FFKR President pointed out, their overseas-based star-players proved key among their run of positive results. Out of the starting side in the recent win over Jordan, nine are plying their trades in foreign leagues. Notably, keeping goal is Maldives-based Pavel Matiash and skippering the team is experienced defender Azamat Baymatov who is strutting his stuff with Sitra Club in Bahrain. Thai-based Edgar Bernhardt provides the drive from midfield, while spearheading the attack are Turkish-based Mirlan Murzaev plus Vitalij Lux who plays with FC Nuremberg II.
However, the player drawing the lion's share of attention is none other than Serbian-based Zemlianukhin. The FK Radnicki Nis midfielder is the team's top-scorer in the qualifying campaign with four goals. The 26-year-old completed a brace as they routed Bangladesh in the opener and, after sealing the draw against Tajikistan with a dramatic stoppage-time spot-kick, he would go on to net the match-winner against Jordan.
"They (the overseas-based players) have added their international experiences to this squad," Kyrgyzstan's Russian manager Aleksandr Krestinin said of the performances by their overseas-based contingent. "They have made a positive impact.
"Meanwhile, we should maintain our long-term plan focusing on the development of our grassroots and youth football at home. Our home-based players are very talented with plenty of potential, and I believe they will have a bright future."