Better known for horseback wrestling, eagle hunting and dead goat polo, Kyrgyzstan are hoping to turn heads at this month’s Asian Cup football tournament.
The former Soviet republic has made significant progress since joining the Asian Football Confederation in 1994 and the outsiders warned they will be no pushovers in their debut appearance at the continent’s showpiece event.
Kyrgyzstan’s White Falcons face China on Monday in their opening game in the United Arab Emirates before meeting title favourites South Korea and the Philippines, but coach Aleksandr Krestinin struck a defiant tone.
“We are not here just to make up the numbers,” he told AFP.
“We are serious, competitive participants and we will fight to get through to the last 16. It is a new experience for us, but the whole country is behind us.”
An impoverished, landlocked nation of around six million people, Kyrgyzstan is fiercely proud of its nomadic traditions, many of which are not for the faint-hearted.
The mountainous central Asian country is home to nearly 20 forms of wrestling, bone tossing and a handful of ancient sports famous for their eye-popping ferocity.
Most notable among them is “kok-boru” — where riders on horseback battle each other to grab a headless goat carcass from the dirt and throw it into a goal the size of a children’s paddling pool.
Once at the crossroads of the Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan has nevertheless made significant strides in football since gaining independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
They have risen to 91st in the FIFA world rankings — 12th in Asia, above Qatar, Uzbekistan, and North Korea — and are blessed with genuine talent in players such as Anton Zemlianukhin and Vitaly Lux.
– ‘Nothing to lose’ –
“To qualify for the Asian Cup is a remarkable achievement for us,” said Krestinin, whose side have benefited from the expansion of the Asian Cup from 16 to 24 teams.
“It’s something the whole country has been eagerly waiting for.
“The Kyrgyz football federation is working to develop the sport despite minimal support from the government,” added the Russian. “We are staying updated on the new trends and trying to play modern football.”
However, their hopes of surviving Group C look likely to hinge on results against Marcello Lippi’s China and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Philippines, also Asian Cup first-timers.
South Korea, runners-up four years ago, should prove too strong even without free-scoring Tottenham forward Son Heung-min, who arrives in time for their final group game against China.
“To play against the best teams and players is the ideal situation for our development as a team and individuals,” insisted Krestinin.
“We just need to make sure we are prepared for the challenge.”
Krestinin exuded a quiet confidence before Monday’s crunch tie against China in Al Ain.
“There has been so much positive emotion across our country since we qualified for the Asian Cup,” said the 40-year-old.
“But our first goal is to go through the group stage. Every team in our group has the same goals.
“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”