Turkmenistan on the up
© AFP

Turkmenistan emerged as Asia's biggest movers on December's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking as they rocketed 31 places up to 127th, their highest position since the global order was revised in July of last year.

This giant leap, the biggest in their history, can be attributed to the Central Asians' impressive early results in preliminary matches for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, matches which witnessed them see off Cambodia and Hong Kong en route to reaching the third stage.

Winning start
Playing in only their fourth FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, the former Soviet republic got off to a perfect start by defeating Cambodia both home and away.

They registered a solitary-goal victory in the opening match on 11 October, but it was a different story back on their home soil in Ashgabat 17 days later, when they beat their south-eastern rivals 4-1 to advance to the second stage.

Then on 10 November came their first real test against a resilient Hong Kong, who bravely held the visiting Turkmenistan to a goalless draw. In the make-or-break return leg, though, it was once again Rakhim Kurbanmamedov's charges who successfully translated their home advantage into a convincing victory, firing an unanswered three goals past their opponents.

Sustained progress
These sweeping victories came as a tremendous boost for this fledgling football nation, who have failed to make an impact in a major continental competition since becoming affiliated to FIFA in 1994.

Their FIFA World Cup qualifying debut for France 1998 ended in disappointment, Turkmenistan finishing third behind winners China PR and runners-up Tajikistan. The Central Asians did fare a little better in the group stage four years later when they outdid Jordan and Chinese Taipei to take second place behind Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, while this achievement undoubtedly showcased the progress that had been made, it was not enough to send them through.

Their hope was to go one better in the preliminaries for Germany 2006, but being drawn in a group featuring the formidable Saudi Arabia, against whom they lost both ties, effectively represented mission impossible. The Sons of the Desert went on to wrap up first place in the pool with two matches remaining, leaving Turkmenistan consigned to a second-place finish once again.

High hopes
Despite having failed to progress to the final round of qualifying for the past three FIFA World Cups, Turkmenistan begin their fourth bid determined to make history. They were not, however, given a kind draw, joining Korea Republic, Korea DPR and Jordan in an enthralling section.

Yet despite the tough assignments, they have shown that they are more than capable of pulling off a few surprises. While Korea Republic will be widely expected to clinch the group's top place, Turkmenistan are adjudged well capable of edging out the other two sides to claim the second qualifying spot available on this occasion.

Even Korea Republic will have to be wary of Turkmenistan's potential as dark horses. After all, in their first AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2004, the debutants stunned Saudi Arabia 2-2, a result which helped eliminated the three-time Asian champions after the group stage.

Can they claim another high-profile scalp? Only time will tell.