- Kyrgyz Republic reach AFC Asian Cup last 16 on debut
- Central Asians impressed in a tough group
- Achievement comes on the back of a decade-long period of growth
What better way to start the year than with a history-making achievement. Twenty-seven years after playing their maiden international match following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz Republic have created their greatest football achievement at the ongoing AFC Asian Cup.
Not satisfied with merely participating in their maiden continental competition, the Central Asian side won through to the knockout stage. And they did so, in some style too as Vitalij Lux scored a stunning hat-trick in a decisive 3-1 win over the hitherto impressive Philippines. In doing so, the Ulm striker became the first Kyrgyz player to score a treble in an international match.
"We showed that we can play good football despite being debutants," said the German-based forward. "We have demonstrated very good football overall, regardless of whether we progress or not. We are not exactly happy with the results, of course, but we are happy with the quality of football we played."
The win over Philippines saw Kyrgyz Republic qualify as one of the best third-placed sides in the 24-nation tournament, and with a dose of luck they could have finished second.
Opening the tournament against Marcello Lippi's China PR, Kyrgyz Republic took a well-deserved first-half lead only to fall 2-1 after conceding two second-half goals – the latter an unlucky own goal.
They maintained a high-level against continental heavyweights Korea Republic, defending gallantly with only Kim Minjae's first-half strike the difference between the sides.
By doing so, Kyrgyz Republic became the only side of the debutants to progress with Philippines and Yemen both crashing out.
Reaching the knockout stage in the Asian Cup comes as a testament to Kyrgyz Republic’s decade-long efforts in developing their game. Attempts at qualifying for previous Asian Cups failed and their most notable achievement was third in the AFC Challenge Cup – a second-tier continental tournament.
The turning-point came when the country's football authorities embarked on long-term development at the start of 2010. Their efforts began with building a competitive domestic league providing a platform for young players to emerge and develop.
At international level, a pair of Russian managers, firstly Sergey Dvoryankov and then the current coach Aleksandr Krestinin, have guided the nation’s hopes.
The efforts began to bear fruit as they impressed in Asia's second qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, pulling off four wins including a stunning 1-0 victory over Jordan. They followed up those performances by finishing joint group leaders alongside India to seal passage to the continental stage.
"We had a quality preparation for the [Asian Cup] tournament, which started last spring as soon as we qualified so we are ready," head coach Krestinin told the media ahead of the opener against China PR. "No one is born with experience, and we are gaining it step by step."
Kyrgyz Republic now tackle hosts United Arab Emirates in the Round of 16 on Monday and despite the daunting task, Krestinin remains unfazed.
"We are taking every game very seriously, and I think our previous games have shown that we're going to fight in any match we play here in this tournament.”