Turkmenistan make progress in Asia
© AFP

Despite remaining inactive since February, Central Asian nation Turkmenistan gained 17 points to soar eight places up to 134 on November's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking. With this climb, the former Soviet republic became this month's second best movers in Asia, leapfrogging the likes of Indonesia and Singapore to move inside their continent's top 20.

The unexpected rise is partly attributable to their excellent performance during this February’s AFC Challenge Cup, where the Green Men stormed into the final only to lose to Korea DPR via the lottery of penalties. Despite the near-miss, the runners-up finish represents the best-ever achievement Turkmenistan can boast at international level since joining the AFC in 1994.

Continental emergence
Two years ago in their first appearance in the second-tier Asian competition designated for emerging football nations, Turkmenistan failed to progress beyond the group stage. The disappointment, however, served as motivation for coach Yazguly Hojageldiyev and his charges, who entered the 2010 edition desperate to underline their true abilities.

The team didn’t let their supporters down this time around, drawing 1-1 against tournament favourites Korea DPR in the opener before overcoming India's U-23 side by a solitary goal. Another 1-0 victory over Kyrgyzstan fired them into the semi-finals, where they went on to prevail over neighbouring Tajikistan 2-0 and set up the final clash with Korea DPR.

The re-match was largely a carbon copy of their earlier group meeting, with the central Asians taking the lead in the opening half before the east Asians rallying to draw level after restart. Korea DPR defender Ryang Myong-Il was sent off just past the hour-mark after committing a serious foul, which gifted Turkmenistan a spot-kick from which prolific striker Berdy Shamuradov put his side ahead. Despite being a goal up and having numerical superiority, Hojageldiyev’s side failed to turn their advantage into victory, while Korea DPR best displayed their never-say-die spirit by equalising with 15 minutes remaining before triumphing in penalty shoot-out.

Despite narrowly missing out on the title and thus a coveted berth at next month’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup, Turkmenistan didn't finish empty-handed, with their second-place performance securing them an automatic place in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. For coach Hojageldiyev, the progress on display throughout the campaign has cemented confidence about the team's future.

"It was not a lucky day for us," he said. "But we are happy with the way we played and that has made us determined to win next time and our target is always to win the tournament to qualify for the Asian Cup."

Strong domestic base
Turkmenistan's recent emergence is partly a reflection of the rapid development in their domestic competition; the Yokary Liga, or the Turkmenistan Higher League. Dominating the ten-strong league are two capital-based giants, two time-winners FC Asgabat and HTTU Asgabat, the latter being the nation's most successful club. They have won the league and President's Cup on three occasions apiece, plus two Super Cup titles and one Turkmenistan Cup champions.

It was thus no surprise that the duo have been the biggest providers for the national team, with their players accounting for over two-thirds of Hojageldiyev's AFC Challenge Cup squad. The most notable among them is 28-year-old Shamuradov, who topped the league's scoring chart for five seasons to overtake Rejepmurad Agabayev as the country's all-time top scorer.