Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.
The falcon is one of nature's most skilled predators. This majestic bird can often strike without warning, leaving its prey vulnerable. The falcon also happens to be the nickname for Kyrgyzstan's national football team.
For two decades, the White Falcons laid dormant in an area where other Central Asian countries enjoyed successes, with the most notable being Uzbekistan. The lack of success left the former Soviet nation as an endangered football entity. Little by little, Kyrgyzstan improved slowly, getting help not just on the domestic level, but with an international influence abroad.
The success started in 2006 when Kyrgyzstan finished as a semifinalist in the AFC Challenge Cup. The long journey culminated in 12 years with the nation's successful qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, where Kyrgyzstan defeated the Philippines to reach Round 16 in its debut.
The Beginning of an Identity
Kyrgyzstan played its first match in 1992 but struggled during the first five years against other Central Asian nations. That lack of success garnered little interest to the point that Kyrgyzstan's first crucial qualifying campaign had no home match. Kyrgyzstan played its 1996 Asian Cup qualifiers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Four games in 10 days saw Kyrgyzstan win one game — a 3-1 consolation victory against Yemen following Kyrgyzstan's elimination from qualifying.
If that initial qualifying campaign in Saudi Arabia proved a harsh reality, then Kyrgyzstan's debut in World Cup qualifying was a baptism of fire in Damascus, Syria. Abbasiyyin Stadium was the site of Kyrgyzstan's first World Cup qualifier, where on June 4, 1997, Kyrgyzstan suffered a 7-0 defeat to IR Iran. However, Kyrgyzstan bounced back and, with a fighting spirit, won three of the remaining four qualifiers - including a 6-0 victory against the Maldives at Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
Like the 1996 qualifying campaign, Kyrgyzstan played its 2000 Asian Cup qualifiers in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan lost all three games, including the last one in which Netmajan Zakirov scored to put Kyrgyzstan up after 51 minutes. But Iraq answered that goal by scoring five without reply. A theme that became Kyrgyzstan beginning in 1996 and lasting through the 2000s was that the nation played mainly qualifying matches and rarely played friendlies. Kyrgyzstan still had a lot to learn before it could take flight.
Game Winning Goal in a World Cup Qualifier
An Opportunity Knocks
Kyrgyzstan followed up three losses in the 2000 Asian Cup qualifiers with three losses in the inaugural West Asian Football Federation Cup. For five days, Kyrgyzstan scored zero goals and allowed eight goals. Dilatorily that year, Kyrgyzstan played against a UEFA member on Nov. 15, 2000, where the result was familiar — a 1-0 loss in front of only 750 people in Kuressaare, Estonia.
Between 1999 and 2002, Kyrgyzstan's only victory came against Singapore in a 2002 World Cup qualifier. Ilia Kovalenko scored the lone goal in Singapore's National Stadium to deliver Kyrgyzstan a 1-0 win on Feb. 3, 2001. After his nation had suffered two pairs of losses to Bahrain and Kuwait, Kovalenko also scored the tying goal against Singapore in Kuwait to cap its World Cup qualifying campaign.
In 2003, Vyacheslav Pryanishnikov scored twice against Nepal in Kathmandu in a 2004 Asian Cup preliminary qualifier. Kyrgyzstan needed one more goal to advance to the upcoming round, but the 2-0 victory was not enough to prevent elimination. This match would furthermore be Kyrgyzstan's last Asian Cup qualifier until 2015.
Despite the exit, Kyrgyzstan ended 2003 by winning both legs against Pakistan to commence the 2006 World Cup qualifying. Kyrgyzstan played a home qualifier as Sergei Chikishev, having scored in the first leg, scored 18 minutes into the game to get Kyrgyzstan through to the subsequent round.
Kyrgyzstan struggled against better opposition. In its opening match, Kyrgyzstan blew a 1-0 a lead against Central Asian neighbors Tajikistan and lost at home. The most resounding result Kyrgyzstan suffered came in Arad, Bahrain; there at Al Muharraq Stadium, Kyrgyzstan allowed A'ala Hubail to score a hat trick in a 5-0 loss. Vyacheslav Amin did give Kyrgyzstan a consolation victory in the final qualifier in Syria. However, the 1-0 win on Nov. 17, 2004, in Abbasiyyin Stadium would be the last game Kyrgyzstan engaged in until 2006.
The Falcons were still emerging, but it needed to prove itself.
A Star is Born in India
In 2005, the Asian Football Conference (AFC) established a new tournament dedicated to helping the continent's "emerging nations." Kyrgyzstan did not enter the 2007 Asian Cup qualification phase but was one of 16 nations that participated in the inaugural Challenge Cup.
Former Lokomotiv Moskva player Boris Podkorytov managed Kyrgyzstan as this tournament, with the squad consisting of nearly half its players at or below 21 years old. Kyrgyzstan had a decent showing, winning three games en route to the semifinals. The seminal moment came on Apr. 9, 2006, when Ruslan Djamshidov scored in stoppage time to knock out Palestine.
Podkorytov gave hope to Kyrgyzstan through this tournament, but in December 2006 left the position. In 2007, Nematjan Zakirov became the manager as Kyrgyzstan had a busy year that began with three losses in a regional tournament. This journey included a 6-0 loss to Uzbekistan on Mar. 9, 2007, in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Later that year, Kyrgyzstan participated in the Nehru Cup, a tournament that returned to India after a 10-year absence.
Kyrgyzstan began with two goals in 18 minutes at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi against Cambodia. Despite trailing 3-2 at halftime, Kyrgyzstan responded with Djamshidov tying the match before Vadim Harchenko capped off the comeback with a 4-3 victory. Djamshidov added a second goal later in the tournament against Bangladesh, and in that same match, Hurshil Lutfallaev scored twice to win Man of the Match honors. Kyrgyzstan finished third and missed out on the final by its 3-0 loss to India.
Kyrgyzstan responded to that disappointment two months later. At that point, the 2-0 victory against Jordan in a 2010 World Cup qualifier had been one of the nation's best successes to date. However, Kyrgyzstan failed to hold on to the aggregate lead, ultimately succumbing out of qualifying via a penalty shootout 6-5.
Within five years, Kyrgyzstan had opportunities to reach the AFC Challenge Cup. Despite hosting qualifiers against Afghanistan (lost 1-0) and Bangladesh (won 2-1), Kyrgyzstan failed to reach the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. Kyrgyzstan reached the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup thanks to two 1-1 draws but managed to secure one victory (the 2-1 result is an unofficial match due to India's squad fielded during the tournament).
The other win also came in New Delhi - a 4-1 victory against Sri Lanka. Despite Kyrgyzstan's performance, a star emerged from that tournament. This player scored his first international goals against Lebanon and Sri Lanka in August 2009. He took a hiatus from international duty, but Anton Zemlianukhin became a rising star for the nation.
A Shot at Reaching Australia?
The Road in and to the Maldives
In 2011, Kyrgyzstan attempted to qualify for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup with three qualifiers played in the Maldives. However, two early losses eliminated Kyrgyzstan. The lone consolation would be a 4-3 victory against Cambodia, where Cholponbek Esenkul Uulu scored twice. It would be the only win for Kyrgyzstan that year.
Four months after that victory, Kyrgyzstan had another Central Asian derby against Uzbekistan as the two nations contested in a pair of 2014 World Cup qualifiers, for which Kyrgyzstan lost 7-0 on aggregate. In 2012, another central Asian showdown occurred, but the 5-2 loss against Kazakhstan was the only match Kyrgyzstan played that year. When March 2013 came, Kyrgyzstan dipped to its nadir at the FIFA World Ranking. Kyrgyzstan needed help, and it would have to recruit players domestically to achieve success.
That started with Russian-born Sergei Dvoryankov, a former coach for FC Dordoi Bishkek, who took over as Kyrgyzstan's manager in September 2012. Dvoryankov called up many former players to play for the once they became eligible. Some Kyrgyz born players had roots with other countries, especially some from Africa. One of those stars obtained citizenship while playing for FC Dordoi Bishkek, but it was until March 2013 when he became eligible to play for Kyrgyzstan.
That would when David Tetteh debuted, and he proved instrumental in Kyrgyzstan's revival in which the nation hosted three games during March 2013 at Spartak Stadium. These games offered a ticket to the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup for the group winner. When group play ended, Kyrgyzstan won three 1-0 matches against Macau, Pakistan, and Tajikistan to top its group. The man who scored all three goals was Tetteh.
Tetteh's performance during the qualifying phase offered Kyrgyzstan hope, especially since the winner of the 2014 Challenge Cup would be the last automatic berth to the 2015 Asian Cup. For the next 11 months, Kyrgyzstan played friendlies against Asian and European opponents. The preparations being in Tallinn, Estonia, where Vadim Kharchenko's tying goal helped Kyrgyzstan get a 1-1 draw in Estonia. Kharchenko scored in the next match three days later, when his goal helped Kyrgyzstan, playing with ten men due to Claude Maka Kum's sending off, tied the game.
Vladimir Verevkin provided Kyrgyzstan's notable result during the 2014 Challenge Cup - his only goal for Kyrgyzstan helped his nation defeat Myanmar in Addu City, Maldives. This victory provided consolation as Kyrgyzstan could not reach the semifinals after losing its first matches. For Verevkin, it would be the final game for Kyrgyzstan as he received a lifetime ban from football due to match-fixing.
A Goal of Beauty in Bishkek
The Long Journey Begins
Between 2008 and 2014, the AFC Challenge Cup offered the winners an automatic berth to the AFC Asian Cup. However, on Apr. 14, 2014, the AFC approved the expansion of the Asian Cup to 24 nations, declaring the Challenge Cup defunct. In October 2014, Kyrgyzstan hired another Russian-born manager to get Kyrgyzstan to the Asian Cup in Aleksandr Krestinin. A former defender who played for 15 clubs, Krestinin ended his playing career ended in the western Kyrgyz town Kochkor-Ata, where his managerial career began with a league title for FC Neftchi.
Krestinin continued the trend his predecessor started in seeking talented players with Kyrgyz roots. On June 11, 2015, Kyrgyzstan played its first Asian Cup qualifier in over a decade and was the first eight qualifiers that also doubled as 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Kyrgyzstan began the qualifying campaign in Dhaka's Bangabandhu Stadium, having last played there during the 2006 AFC Challenge Cup. After last representing his country in 2010, Zemlianunkin scored his first international goal in six years. Edgar Bernhardt added a second goal to double the lead, and while Kyrgyzstan allowed an own goal, Zemlianukhin added a second goal to secure the 3-1 victory.
Kyrgyzstan's first tough test arrived five days later - a home match against the continental champions Australia. Kyrgyzstan hoped for a positive start, but after only two minutes trailed on a Mike Jedinak goal. Despite trailing early, Kyrgyzstan never wavered against tougher opposition. Zemlianukhin gave Australian a stricter task of defending than expected, and Kyrgyzstan kept the game at 1-0 until a 68th-minute goal from Tommy Oar gave a little breathing room. Kyrgyzstan got a consolation goal from Almazbek Mirzaliev in stoppage time, but in the end, Kyrgyzstan lost 2-1.
That performance in Bishkek helped Kyrgyzstan achieve notable results. Goalkeeper Pavel Matyash proved instrumental in Kyrgyzstan recording a scoreless draw in Amman, Jordan. In October 2015, Kyrgyzstan picked up a draw and a victory. Bakhtiyar Duyshobekov scored his first goal for Kyrgyzstan in the Oct. 8, 2015 match against Tajikistan. However, when it seemed Tajikistan would have escaped with a win after scoring twice in six minutes to lead in the 71st minute, Zemlianukhin scored the tying goal to record a valuable draw. Five days later, Vitali Lux scored his first international goal against Bangladesh. Ildar Amirov scored his first international goal since 2010, and the 2-0 result had Kyrgyzstan dreaming.
However, Kyrgyzstan struggled against Australia in Canberra and could not stop Jedinak and Tim Cahill from scoring. Amirov's own goal prevented Kyrgyzstan from reaching the World Cup. However, Kyrgyzstan won its remaining qualifiers. Zemilanukhin scored a brilliant strike in another upset of Jordan, while Lux's 18th-minute goal against Tajikistan proved the difference in Dushanbe's Pamir Stadium. Despite missing out on the 2018 World Cup, Kyrgyzstan won four games in a single World Cup qualifying campaign.
Kyrgyzstan had a second chance to qualify for the Asian Cup.
Group B of 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualification/2019 Asian Cup Qualification
Making the Most of a Second Chance
Kyrgyzstan was seeded ahead of a draw for the third qualifying round, where 12 nations from six groups will reach the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. That journey began with a home match against Macau, the visitors having replaced Kuwait before the draw.
Azamat Baymatov scored the 70th-minute strike that proved decisive in a victory against Macau on Mar. 28, 2017. Kyrgyzstan's next test came nearly three months in Bangalore, India. So much changed for both nations, especially given that around the time Kyrgyzstan hung in against Australia, India suffered an embarrassing 2-1 loss in Guam. India needed a playoff victory against Laos to get to this point. However, India had the experience, with Sunil Chhetri scoring the winning goal against Kyrgyzstan. With Myanmar winning 3-0 against Macau that same day, Kyrgyzstan trailed Myanmar on goal difference after two games ahead of a meeting that was supposed to occur on Sept. 5, 2017.
However, the AFC postponed this match due to the then-ongoing Rohingya genocide in Myanmar since Aug. 25, 2017, an incident that saw nearly 85,000 residents from Myanmar's Rakhine State flee into Bangladesh. The qualifier scheduled to occur in Myanmar on Oct. 10, 2017, took place as scheduled. Zemlianukhin began a scoring streak thanks to his ninth-minute penalty kick. With Viktor Maier scoring four minutes into the second half, Kyrgyzstan led 2-0 and was on their way to a vital victory. However, Aung Thu cut the deficit in half before Kyaw Ko Ko scored in stoppage time to salvage a point. With India winning the next day to clinch a spot in the Asian Cup, the pressure was on Kyrgyzstan to get a victory away in Macau.
The task seemed simple against the 187th-ranked nation, even with Zemlianukhin scoring twice as Kyrgyzstan led at one point 3-0. Macau would make this match closer before Mirlan Murzaev helped Kyrgyzstan get a cushion as it would eventually win 4-3. With India holding Myanmar to a 2-2 draw, Kyrgyzstan was now on the cusp of a historic berth and hoped to do so at home against Myanmar.
That match occurred not in Bishkek but Incheon, South Korea. For Kyrgyzstan, the game started quickly as Islam Shamshiev and Zemlianukhin scored in the opening five minutes. As the game progressed, Kyrgyzstan wanted to qualify in style. Zemlianukhin added a second goal, and Lux scored his second goal of this phase. Although Myanmar added a consolation goal, Bekzhan Sagynbaev sealed Kyrgyzstan's qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup.
Zemlianukhin finished with ten goals during qualifying, with his last two minutes into the finale against India. With Murzaev scoring later in the match, Kyrgyzstan would have even won its group - had it not been for an 88th-minute strike from Jeje Lalpekhlua. Still, Kyrgyzstan would be in the United Arab Emirates in January 2019.
2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification – Third Round Group A
A Fighting Spirit Throughout
Kyrgyzstan prepared ahead of the Asian Cup with notable victories being a 2-1 home win against Syria on Sept. 10, 2018, where Zhyrgalbek Uulu and Sagynbaev scored goals. Rustamov helped Kyrgyzstan pull off another victory against Jordan on Dec. 20, 2018, with his first international in over five years.
All three players made the squad, along with other Zemlianukhin, Lux, and Matyash. Kyrgyzstan's most capped player ahead of the tournament, Matyash had no club affiliation after leaving Uzbek club FC AGMK. Whereas one goalkeeper gained 37 caps, Kutman Kadyrbekov gained no caps but would be the starting goalkeeper by the end of the tournament.
Israilov made history in the 42nd minute when he received Murzaev's headed flick and volley in Kyrgyzstan's first goal at the Asian Cup. Matyash made history for a more nefarious reason - an unsuccessful tip from a Valeri Kichin clearance to become the first goalkeeper to score an own goal in an Asian Cup. Yu Dabao completed the comeback, and China won 2-1. When Kyrgyzstan opposed the Korea Republic next, Kadyrbekov started as the goalkeeper, and Matyash would not see any more action.
Kadyrbekov helped Kyrgyzstan stay in the game, which included saving attempts from Koo Ja-Cheol and Lee Chung-Yong, the latter which had resulted in the critical play. Kadyrbekov could not stop Kim Min-Jae from scoring a headed goal right before halftime. Despite some more saves from the goalkeeper, Kyrgyzstan lost 1-0. After two losses, Kyrgyzstan could still reach the Round of 16 with a victory against the Philippines.
At Rashid Stadium in Dubai, Lux starred in the crucial match, as Kyrgyzstan outshot the Philippines 15-2 in the first half. Lux scored his first career hat trick, and the 3-1 victory sent Kyrgyzstan to the Round of 16, where tournament hosts the United Arab Emirates awaited in Abu Dhabi.
An entertaining knockout stage match unfolded that included Rustamov's tying goal in stoppage time. The recent introduction of the fourth substitute in extra time proved vital for both nations. Having replaced Amer Abdulrahman in the 98th minute, Ahmed Khalil received a chance after Sagynbaev brought down Ali Mabkhout in the penalty area right before the first half of extra time. Khalil scored the ensuing penalty to provide the hosts the lead. Before that penalty kick took place, Kyrgyzstan implemented its fourth substitution, with Duyshobekov replacing Murzaev. With the match approaching its climax, Kyrgyzstan obtained two chances to force a penalty shootout, but Duyshobekov and Rustamov's misses could not save Kyrgyzstan from elimination.
Despite the 3-2 loss, Kyrgyzstan achieved history. Now with another qualifying campaign having begun in September 2019, Kyrgyzstan is hoping to return to the Asian Cup when China hosts the tournament in 2023. This time, Kyrgyzstan will be hungry and ready to attack - life a falcon does to its prey.
- Member Association - Kyrgyz Republic - FIFA.com
News, statistics and information about Kyrgyz Republic on FIFA.com
- Kyrgyzstan – the Forgotten Football Federation; Exeter Central Asian Studies Network
A commentary about a friendly
- Kyrgyz team for the first time made its way to Asian Football Championship
See additional photos from Kyrgyzstan's match against Myanmar that was contested in Incheon, South Korea.
© 2019 Antonio Martinez