Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.
Turkmenistan’s Soccer Team
The 2019 Asian Cup broke new ground in the United Arab Emirates with an expanded format of 24 nations. It was a change for many of Asia’s notable nations to continue their storied footballing histories. At the same time, the 2019 Asian Cup offered opportunities for other emerging nations that had moderate successes at one point.
One of those emerging nations returned after debuting in China in the 2004 Asian Cup. Nearly 14 years after its qualification for the 2004 Asian Cup, Turkmenistan qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup with one game to spare. That qualification seemed priceless considering where the central Asian nation was and the lulls and heartbreaks since.
Though its second run in the Asian Cup ended with three defeats in the group stage, Turkmenistan had finally broken through, and it is now hoping to continue making history.
Birth of the Original Golden Generation
Turkmenistan contested its first international match after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992 but did not win its first Asian Cup qualifier until 2000. Nearly three years after the historic win against Bhutan, Turkmenistan rose quickly on the global scene. When 2003 ended, Turkmenistan was the third-highest climber in the FIFA rankings, behind Bahrain and Oman.
That historic climb first began when Turkmenistan won 1-0 against the United Arab Emirates during the 2004 Asian Cup qualifiers, with Vladimir Bayramov scoring his first goal for the country in over two years. Eleven days later, Vladimir’s brother, Nazar Bayramov, scored his first-ever goal for Turkmenistan; despite allowing an equalizing goal, Turkmenistan achieved a 1-1 draw. Two wins against Sri Lanka followed (at home 1-0 before a 3-0 victory in Colombo) before its encounter against Syria, but Turkmenistan would kick off another qualifying tournament.
Turkmenistan’s home qualifier against Afghanistan was the first of 158 World Cup qualifiers in the Asian Football Conference (AFC). Turkmenistan kicked off its campaign in emphatic style, with Begençmuhammet Kulyýew and Rejepmyrat Agabaýew, each recording hat tricks during the match. When the game finished, Turkmenistan won an 11-0 victory, and the result remains the nation’s most massive victory to date. Four days later, Turkmenistan added a 2-0 away victory in Kabul, with Kulyýew scoring twice late to secure Turkmenistan’s passage to the second round.
With those World Cup qualifiers completed, Turkmenistan turned its focus on Syria, where one point would be enough for qualification to the 2004 Asian Cup. Despite allowing a goal within 10 minutes, Turkmenistan equalized and got the result needed to secure passage, with Didargylyç Urazow scoring six minutes later as Turkmenistan qualified with the 1-1 draw. Five days later, Turkmenistan finished round-robin play as group winners courtesy of a 3-0 walkover victory after Syria failed to show up for the match.
From Apex to Nadir
Turkmenistan began the second round of the 2006 World Cup qualifying with home victories over Sri Lanka and Indonesia in early 2004. As a result, Turkmenistan rose to 84th before a June 9 trip to Jeddah to face Saudi Arabia. However, Turkmenistan lost that match 3-0, but it would not be long before both nations met again - this next match being Turkmenistan's first Asian Cup match.
Turkmenistan against Saudi Arabia looked like a mismatch on paper. Saudi Arabia had played at three World Cups and reached the Asian Cup final in five successive editions, winning three times. Nevertheless, despite playing its first Asian Cup match, Turkmenistan led the game after only six minutes, thanks to a Nazar Bayramov goal. The lead was short-lived, as Yasser Al-Qahtani level three minutes later on a penalty kick. The Saudi striker added a second goal 14 minutes into the second half, and Saudi Arabia was on its way to another Asian Cup victory.
Then came Kullyew and his moment of glory, when he scored off a free kick that passed the goalkeeper's reach, and Turkmenistan pulled off an impressive 2-2 draw. Turkmenistan hung in against Iraq and Uzbekistan, with Kullyew also leveling a match at 2-2 against Iraq. However, Turkmenistan lost both games, leaving its first Asian Cup with just one point.
Turkmenistan's victory over Indonesia in March 2004 was the nation's last victory for over three years. Turkmenistan played no matches and sank to its lowest ranking ever at 173rd.
Returning to the Heyday?
Three years elapsed since Turkmenistan contested a major qualifying match in which they lost 3-1 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Turkmenistan did not participate in the inaugural 2006 AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament devoted to Asia’s “emerging associations.” In 2007, Turkmenistan joined several Asian nations in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
Turkmenistan returned to winning ways, sweeping both games in its 5-1 aggregate victory over Cambodia in October 2017, before enduring a difficult task against Hong Kong. After achieving a goalless first leg, Turkmenistan made the home field count, and their 3-0 victory secured passage into the third round of qualifying.
Turkmenistan had once again reached another phase of World Cup qualifying, but this would be a sterner experience. In the end, it would be eventual World Cup participants North and South Korea, along with Jordan, that proved too much for Turkmenistan. During third-round qualifying, Turkmenistan managed one goal, and its scoreless draw against North Korea was the nation’s only point achieved.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup was out of reach. Now, the 2011 Asian Cup was the main focus.
Only winning either the AFC Challenge Cup in either the 2008 or 2010 editions would suffice for Turkmenistan. In 2008, Turkmenistan was one of four automatic qualifiers in the eight-team field; in its group were the tournament's host, India, and defending champions Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Turkmenistan looked to return to the Asian Cup.
Unfortunately, despite being one of the favorites to win the tournament, Turkmenistan exited the group stage. Needing only a draw to advance to the semifinals, Turkmenistan trailed 2-0 on a brace from Baichung Bhatia after 80 minutes. Despite a late goal from Orazkmämmedow four minutes, Turkmenistan lost 2-1.
That result knocked out Turkmenistan from the tournament, and India ended up winning the championship and the automatic berth to Qatar in 2011 as India qualified for its first Asian Cup in 27 years.
Double the Pain and More Agony
After 2008, Turkmenistan needed a qualification phase to return to the Challenge Cup. The 2010 edition offered Turkmenistan another chance at reaching the 2011 Asian Cup, which it did during its qualification phase. Three games in five days in Male, Maldives saw Turkmenistan make light work of hosts the Maldives, Bhutan, and the Philippines, winning all three matches by a combined 15-1.
During the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup, Turkmenistan faced North Korea twice at Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 10 days. The teams first met in group play on Feb. 17, 2010: a 1-1 draw saw Turkmenistan score first before Ryang Yong-Gi tied the match. On Feb. 27, the two teams met again in the tournament final As was the first game, Yong-Gi scored the tying goal in the 75th minute. However, penalty kicks determined the outcome. Turkmenistan lost 6-5 in the penalty shootout, as its opponents reached its first Asian Cup since 1992.
Turkmenistan’s schedule seldom featured friendlies. More onus came for the Challenge Cup, especially following its elimination against Indonesia during the 2014 World Cup qualifying when Turkmenistan was so close to advancing on away goals. With the 2012 Challenge Cup held in Nepal, Turkmenistan’s focus was to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup, contested in Australia. Turkmenistan recorded victories over Pakistan and Chinese Taipei in March 2011 to be eligible for Nepal's following year’s tournament.
During the 2012 Challenge Cup group, Turkmenistan topped its group ahead of Palestine on goal difference to set up a semifinal against the Philippines. Although the Philippines took the lead after 25 minutes, Turkmenistan came from behind - two goals in the second half sent Turkmenistan to a second straight final - a rematch of the 2010 final with North Korea.
In Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, Turkmenistan flew out of the gates with a second-minute goal. As it was in 2010, North Korea tied the match, and another 1-1 game loomed with possible extra time. However, Turkmenistan allowed a penalty kick, and North Korea’s Jang Song-Hyok converted the penalty as North Korea denied Turkmenistan another berth at the Asian Cup once again.
Turkmenistan previously missed out on the 2014 Challenge Cup, only for the nation to qualify following a revamp of tie-breaking scenarios. Having advanced at the expense of Bangladesh, Turkmenistan was favored to win the 2014 Challenge Cup and the automatic berth to the 2015 Asian Cup. Turkmenistan began well with a 5-1 victory over Laos. Despite the success, Turkmenistan could not carry any momentum. A stunning loss to Afghanistan and another loss to the Philippines sent Turkmenistan out of the tournament.
A year after that elimination, Turkmenistan ranked 173rd in the FIFA Rankings on June 4, 2015, near its record low from eight years earlier, as the nation began its qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup, in what was unprecedented in qualifying.
The Asian Football Conference decided to revamp its qualifying process and, in doing so, expanded the Asian Cup to include 24 nations. The Challenge Cup became defunct, and a new opportunity presented Turkmenistan a chance at reaching the tournament. When the draw took place on Apr. 10, 2015, Turkmenistan found itself in a group featuring Iran, Oman, India, and a fourth nation that is not on Asian soil.
Instead, Turkmenistan's first qualifier came on June 11, 2015, at an American territory- namely the village of Dededo, Guam. This match was also Guam’s first home World Cup qualifier and its first World Cup qualifier since November 2000, when it lost to Iran and Tajikistan by a combined 35-0 over the two games. However, a lot changed in 15 years, and Turkmenistan found out during a Guam throw-in early in the match. An early misdirected ball from Turkmenistan in the 12th minute proved decisive in the game. Guam did the unthinkable and pulled off a massive upset winning 1-0.
Proving a Point
Having suffered a shocking upset, Turkmenistan hoped to pull an upset of its own against one of Asia's heavyweights. They would eventually qualify for the 2018 World Cup two years later, as Iran traveled to Turkmenistan in what was a historic match for the Central Asian nation. This match, contested on June 16, 2015, marked the first match challenged not in Turkmenistan's capital city Ashgabat, but instead up north in Dasoguz, a town of the famous Silk Road located 10 kilometers from the border of Uzbekistan. Yet there was something peculiar about the 10000 people in attendance for this match. They were not loyal fans looking to enjoy a historic moment, but rather ordinary people mandated to attend the match.
Iran's first qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup began well quickly after only four minutes by a player of Iranian Turkmen origin. He was on Iran's squad at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, and Sardar Azmoun scored what would be the first of 11 goals in qualifying after some clever maneuvering ended with a shot past three Turkmen players into the left corner of the net. Yet, right before halftime, Turkmenistan managed to get possession in stoppage time, and it ended with Ruslan Mingazow one-timing his shot past the goalkeeper.
Mingazow's goal was his first for Turkmenistan since scoring in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, and he celebrated his goal with other teammates in a corner with fans. Turkmenistan celebrated after the game as the 1-1 draw proved to be a sign of fortunes turned around.
During the rest of the qualifying, Turkmenistan continued its improvement with a home win against Oman and two victories against 2011 Asian Cup participants India. Yet, road losses in Iran and Oman denied Turkmenistan contention for the 2018 World Cup. But, its third-place performance was good enough for a second chance at qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.
A Second Chance Fulfilled
With that victory, Turkmenistan ranked 128th in FIFA ahead of the January 2017 draw for the Asian Cup third-round qualifiers. Turkmenistan learned it would play Bahrain, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei. While Turkmenistan last reached an Asian Cup 2004, two of its opponents had more prolonged droughts: Singapore last played in 1984 as hosts, while Chinese Taipei made its only appearance in 1968. Singapore notched a scoreless draw in Saitama, Japan, whereas Chinese Taipei needed two qualifying play-off rounds.
Two early goals in Turkmenistan’s road game against Chinese Taipei got the Central Asian nation off to a winning start. The next qualifier would be Turkmenistan's most important test, but the meeting in Dasoguz in June 2017 saw Turkmenistan lose 2-1 to Bahrain. Another loss seemed imminent with Turkmenistan trailing Singapore 1-0 until Turkmenistan secured a vital point on the road. Then, against the same opponents at home, Turkmenistan secured another victory in Ashgabat, winning 2-1. Then with control of its destiny, Turkmenistan led 2-0 to Chinese Taipei, having dispatched Bahrain thanks to two stoppage-time goals.
Tough Lessons Learned as Optimism Abounds
After 14 years, Turkmenistan qualified for the Asian Cup with one game to spare. However, Turkmenistan lost 4-0 to Bahrain on Mar. 27, 2018, and it advanced to the tournament despite a negative goal differential. Following that defeat, Turkmenistan played only one friendly before the competition- a 2-0 victory in which Arslanmyrat Amanow and Ahmet Atayew each scored a goal on Dec. 25, 2018, in Antalya, Turkey. When Turkmenistan announced its squad ahead of the first game, Amanow (Uzbekistan's FK Bukhovo) and Atayew (Indonesia's Persela Lamongan) were two of only four players on Turkmenistan's squads who played abroad. The majority of Turkmenistan's players came from Altyn Asyr and Ahal FC - the latter, which included the captain Annadurdyýew, who scored three goals during qualifying and another goal in Turkmenistan's third game against Oman.
Despite playing a problematic opening game, Turkmenistan fought valiantly against Japan and even managed to take a shock opening lead against Japan courtesy of Amanow's long-range shot 27 minutes into the game. Thoughts of a similar outcome from Turkmenistan's opening game in 2004 seemed possible as the nation nearly doubled its lead. However, Japan scored three goals in 15 minutes, and that would be a significant turning point for Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan followed that 3-2 defeat four days later with another loss in a central Asian derby- 4-0 to Uzbekistan, where its opponents scored all four goals in the opening 42 minutes. Despite the two losses, Turkmenistan could reach the knockout stage against Oman in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 17, 2019. Annadurdyýew tied the match against Oman late in the first half, and the chance was there. However, two late goals from Oman confirmed Turkmenistan's elimination.
A football tournament can help reignite a national team's footballing history as never before. Turkmenistan had previously seen its highest moment of glory between 2003 and 2004. After years of being in the wilderness and without many games to show, Turkmenistan has finally returned to being one of Asia's emerging nations seeking respect. Now, Turkmenistan will aim to make history and reach the 2023 Asian Cup. After Matchday 5 of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup, Turkmenistan had topped its group ahead of South Korea (albeit with a game in hand), North Korea, and Lebanon.
Whatever the outcome is for this central Asian nation, Turkmenistan has put the agony of defeat behind them and has continued to shine like an emerald.
Turkmenistan's Road to the 2019 Asian Cup
June 11, 2015
Dededo: Guam Football Association National Training Center
June 16, 2015
IR Iran (H)
Daşoguz: Sport Toplumy Stadium
Sept. 3, 2015
Al-Seeb: Al-Seeb Stadium
Oct. 8, 2015
Ashgabat: Köpetdag Stadium
Oct. 13, 2015
Ashgabat: Köpetdag Stadium
Nov. 12, 2015
IR Iran (A)
3-1 IR Iran
Tehran: Azadi Stadium
Nov. 17, 2015
Ashgabat: Köpetdag Stadium
Mar. 29, 2016
Kochi: Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium
Mar. 26, 2017
Chinese Taipei (A)
Taipei: Taipei Municipal Stadium
June 13, 2017
Daşoguz: Sport Toplumy Stadium
Sept. 5, 2017
Singapore: Jalan Bessar Stadium
Oct. 10, 2017
Ashgabat: Köpetdag Stadium
Nov. 14, 2017
Chinese Taipei (H)
Balkanabat: Sport Toplumy Stadium
Mar. 27, 2018
Riffa: Bahrain National Stadium
Jan. 9, 2019
Abu Dhabi: Al Nahyan Stadium
Jan. 13, 2019
Dubai: Rashid Stadium
Jan. 17, 2019
Abu Dhabi: Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium
© 2019 Antonio Martinez