Uygur duo chase Olympic dream
© AFP

Descendants of ancient nomadic tribes, the Uygur people from China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region are rarely found within the football fraternity, often having a strong presence in horse racing. However two young starlets, Bali Maimaitiyili and Mirehmetjan Muzepper, are aiming to make a name for themselves at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

The 22-year-old Maimaitiyili spearheads the attack for on-song Chinese Super League side Hangzhou Greentown, while Muzepper, two years younger, is a key presence in the defence for heavyweights Shandong Luneng. Having excelled with their respective clubs, both have earned the right to represent their country and have featured prominently in Miroslav Blazevic's squad that will attempt to qualify for London 2012.

Upturning new ground
Born to a footballing family from Kashgar - both his grandfather and father represented Xinjiang in the national competition - Muzepper was recruited by Shandong Luneng in 2004 at the tender age of ten. It was in the club's youth academy that he cut his teeth, quickly making his name as an emerging star.

He broke into the national youth team in 2009 but it was the following year that Muzepper raised eyebrows by setting a series of records. Firstly, Muzepper became the first player from Xinjiang to feature in the national senior side, which he did in January that year, before breaking his Super League duck with an equaliser for Henan Construction against Beijing Guoan. He also impressed in last November's Asian Games, including providing an assist in a 2-1 defeat of Kyrgyzstan.

A dependable left-back, Muzepper has versatility among his many attributes, being adept on the left flank or as a defensive midfielder. The progress he has made is such that former China and Shandong striker Su Maozhen heaped praise on the youngster. "His technique is sublime and he can launch attack either with accurate long balls or by breaking down the left,” he said. “He is also very good at defense and is a strong tackler.”

Muzepper received an invitation to trial with Dutch giants Ajax in March although he failed to make the trip. The 20-year-old focused for the now on China’s two-legged London 2012 qualifier against Oman this Sunday (19 June) and next Thursday 23 (June). "The west Asians are said to be skillful and pacy," he said. "But we can counter them through our organisational play and physical edge. I am confident we can make it through."

Meteoric rise
Compared to Muzepper's fairly smooth development, Maimaitiyili's rise to prominence was meteoric. After spending years on the local scene in Xinjiang, his first chance came when spotted by Hangzhou coach Wu Jingui, who offered him a surprise deal last year. The youngster settled quickly, making the first team and scoring his maiden Super League goal. However, it was on the Asian stage that he fully demonstrated his predatory instincts.

The setting was the opening round of this year's AFC Champions League, when Hangzhou played host to Japanese champions Nagoya Grampus in their debut continental appearance. Sent on only as a second-half substitute, Maimaitiyili's first touch of the ball yielded the opening goal when he set up Luis Ramirez to break the deadlock. The provider then turned scorer in the closing minutes as Maimaitiyili sealed the 2-0 win.

Despite his late start, the dynamic forward has secured his undisputed place among Blazevic’s starting side given his recent brilliant form. Maimaitiyili may have yet to find the net in a major competition for his country, but the No9 is confident his first goal will come in the first leg against Oman in Shanghai this Sunday.

“We haven’t won a game in our build-up but we have been gradually sharpening our form,” said Maimaitiyili. “We trust our coach and we believe we will go into the opening game in our best shape. My personal goal is to score as many goals as possible and help our side through the qualifying campaign.”