For many, football is not usually something associated with Turkmenistan, a country better known for its rich natural resources. Though only the world's 53rd largest country, the former Soviet republic boasts the fourth-biggest reserves of natural gas. But with the Central Asians excelling in the continent's qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, it is their game rather than resources that has gained increasing attention from across Asia.
As a matter of fact, Amangylyc Kocumow's side had to overcome a disappointing start after a shock one-goal loss to Guam. Yet they have since held group favourites Iran to a 1-1 draw at home before victories against India, Guam and Oman sealed at least a place in the third qualifying round for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup with a game to spare.
"We have had a memorable campaign this time," midfielder Guwanc Abylow told FIFA.com. "Our results so far are not too bad and these feats can be attributed to the players, managers as well as our fans who made it to the stadiums to support us. They are indeed the twelfth man of our team."
"Looking back over recent years, we have constantly made progress," added the 27-year-old, who opened the scoring in the 2-1 victory against India, and netted the matching winning-goal against Guam as they avenged their opening defeat. "Our Football Federation have focused on consistent development and thanks to their efforts we have reached a new level."
*Under the radar
*Turkmenistan cut a relatively low-key profile heading into Asia's qualifying campaign this time around, having suffered early elimination during the past two FIFA World Cups. They finished bottom in their third-round group in the race for South Africa, and were then knocked out by Indonesia over two legs in the opening matches during qualifying for Brazil 2014.
These are unforgettable experiences for us, both the players and fans.
With that disappointment still fresh in mind, few expected the team capable of springing a surprise when they entertained Iran in June. The encounter began as expected with the visitors taking an early lead through striking prodigy Sardar Azmoun. But Ruslan Mingazow drew the hosts level before the break as Turkmenistan stunned Iran with a 1-1 draw in the northern city of Dashoguz.
"In a sense, this game was a big event for not only the city but also our country," Abylow said, recalling one of the most memorable results in the nation’s history. "It was the first time for the city to stage such a high-level international game - a World Cup qualifier. The local boys and girls all went out and gathered in the stadium to cheer us on against such a strong team in Iran. Of course, they were so happy that we didn't let them down."
Success spurs growth
Such festivities continued for the Turkmenistan fans as the team clinched their first win against a desperate India at home. Another solitary-goal home victory against Guam followed, before a recent 2-1 defeat of Oman saw Turkmenistan maintain their undefeated record on home soil. "These are unforgettable experiences for us, both the players and fans," continued Abylow. "Especially, through our showings the fans are attracted to the stadiums and it is good for the development of football."
Throughout the campaign, Abylow has dazzled spectators through his goalscoring abilities, fine passing and dribbling. A Lionel Messi fan, the Turkmenistan No10 draws inspiration from the fact that he has the same jersey number as the Argentina and Barcelona star. "Ten is my favourite number. I am glad to have this jersey number. If you look back into the football history, a lot of star-players also had the same number.”
Awaiting Turkmenistan in the concluding matchday on 29 March is an away match in India. Should they win and other results also go their way, they are hopeful of booking their automatic return to the next AFC Asian Cup."I want to score more goals. But the most important thing is that we get the maximum points. We have proved that we are strong as a unit and we are determined to do our best in the remaining game," Abylow concluded.