Kyrgyzstan, with its picturesque Issyk Kul Lake a stopover on the Silk Road, had once been a bright jewel of the chain that linked the Far East to Europe in ancient Asia. The landlocked and mountainous country has, however, faded from the spotlight on the continent's football scene since its independence in 1991.
They have invariably been on the losing side against both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and they boasted a mere solitary-goal win against Tajikistan in seven previous meetings heading into March's 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualification.
A bronze-medal performance in the inaugural edition of the aforementioned second-tier Asian competition in 2006 is their only register on the international radar. The former Soviet republic may have booked their return to the continental stage in 2010, but losses to Korea DPR and Turkmenistan condemned them to an early exit.
Having missed out on last year’s campaign in Nepal, though, they saw their fortunes revived in qualifying for the next AFC Challenge Cup to be staged in Maldives next March. Playing in front of their adoring fans, the hosts opened brightly with a pair of 1-0 defeats of Macau and Pakistan, before proceeding to edge old rivals Tajikistan by the same scoreline to seal a third continental appearance.
With it came a mammoth 59-place move in April's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to become the globe’s best movers, bouncing back from last month's all-time low of 201 to 142 - their highest placing since 137 recorded in October 2009.
"This success was a gift for our fans and the whole country," Mr Semetey Sultanov, President of Football Federation of Kyrgyz Republic (FFKR), told FIFA.com recently. "Three games, three wins. The team completed its mission. They have showed they are a competitive side."
The success was, indeed, proof of progress made under new Russian coach Sergey Dvoryankov. "Sergey coped with the tasks well," Sultanov continued. "Under his guidance the squad have regained confidence. The entire coaching staff have done a good job, while the FA have also contributed with organisational work."
The FA chief also paid tribute to FIFA, who have provided assistance through its Goal Project over the past decade. He said: "For many years, the financial assistance of FIFA was the only source for us. Certainly, this is not enough to achieve all our objectives, but it has enabled Kyrgyzstan to maintain a place on the world football map."
Debutant Tetteh flies high
The achievements were, however, made possible by the outstanding contribution of a fresh face in the ranks. David Tetteh, a 27-year-old forward, couldn't have made a better start to his international career bagging all of his team’s goals in as many outings.
A dynamic Tetteh headed into his first international campaign as a long-heralded goal-getter on the local scene, having helped Dordoi Bishkek to five of their seven league titles. He proved unstoppable against both Macau and Pakistan by grabbing the match winner. Lining up against a strongly favoured Tajikistan in the decisive concluding match on the Nooruz (New Year), he remained undeterred and kept his cool to score the goal that sealed victory and qualification.
"It was my first time representing my country," the popular marksman told FIFA.com. "But people knew me so they applauded each time I scored. I gave my best on the pitch, and did whatever I could to put the ball in the net, though each time my team-mates provided the passes. I hope I can continue this form in next March’s Challenge Cup and my team wins more matches."
For President Sultanov, Maldives 2014 comes as a rare chance to realise an ambition. “Since my election as the President, I have set a goal of reaching the 2015 Asian Cup. While many question our chances of achieving it (by finishing winners in the next AFC Challenge Cup), I trust our team. We will work hard to prepare for the campaign.
“In the long run, we have changed our strategy since 2012, focusing on building good quality youth teams capable of reaching Asian championships in age groups. Armed with more ambitions and young talents, we will have a bright future, including qualifying for the World Cup.”