Vitalij Lux: My favourite match
Bishkek: From fourth-tier football to international stardom, on January 16, 2019, Vitalij Lux lived out the sort of sporting fairy-tale usually only seen in Hollywood.
The Kara-Balta-born, Germany-based striker carried the Kyrgyz Republic national team on his shoulders on January 16, 2019, bagging the side’s first ever international hat-trick to help them to a crucial 3-1 win over the Philippines, which ultimately sealed their progression to the Round of 16.
Speaking to the-AFC.com, Lux reflected on the day which defined his international career; and one which made him a national hero.
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Born in the modern-day Kyrgyz Republic during the final years of the Soviet Union, Lux moved to Germany aged six and has spent his entire career in the country, playing for clubs both big and small before joining SSV Ulm in 2018.
It was also in 2018 the Kyrgyz Republic side, led by head coach Alexander Krestinin (pictured below, left), sealed their first ever qualification to the AFC Asian Cup, to be held in the UAE the following January, with Lux scoring against Macau and Myanmar to help the Akshumkar reach the Continental Finals.
The Central Asians where drawn against Marcello Lippi’s China PR, Paulo Bento’s Korea Republic and a Sven Goran Eriksson-led Philippines, but despite his side’s illustrious opponents, Lux had no reason to feel overawed despite playing in Germany’s level four Regionalliga Südwest.
Five months prior he had scored in Ulm’s shock 2-1 German Cup win over holders Eintracht Frankfurt – a team featuring Japan captain Makoto Hasebe and future Real Madrid striker Luka Jovic – and he arrived the UAE full of confidence.
“The level was good in Ulm,” said Lux. “We had training every day and we beat Frankfurt in the Cup, so there was a good level. In Germany they train professionally in all of the top four leagues.
“Teams like Korea Republic have better individuals than our side, so they play where they play.”
Lux played all 90 minutes in a narrow 2-1 defeat to China PR, then came on for a 20-minute cameo as Krestinin’s side slipped to a 1-0 loss against tournament favourites Korea Republic, leaving them with a must-win match against the Philippines in Dubai.
Ordinarily two defeats would have been enough to eliminate Kyrgyz Republic with a match to spare, but the new format meant four third-place teams would also advance to the Round of 16, and Lux said his place in the starting line-up was never in doubt ahead of the all-important clash at Rashid Stadium.
“No, I wasn’t worried,” Lux said about his selection chances before the Philippines clash.
“It was, of course, a tactical decision that the coach didn’t start me (against Korea Republic). Korea is a good team; it was necessary to play a little defensively against them.
“There was another game with the Philippines. There we had to win. There we had to attack. Attacking football had to be played.”
Lux had scored against the Philippines before – in a 2-1 loss in Bishkek in September 2016 – and he believed Kyrgyz Republic were ready to benefit from their accrued knowledge of the Southeast Asians, who were also appearing in the Finals for the first time.
“We played against the Philippines many times, two or three times, so we knew what kind of opponent they would be, and we thought we would win. In fact, we were sure,” he declared.
“Everything turned out well. We did not want to go home.”
With Edgar Bernhart controlling the midfield and captain Valerii Kichin marshaling a three-man defence, Kyrgyz Republic created a string of chances from the outset, most of which fell to Lux and strike partner Mirlan Murzaev.
In the 24th minute, Lux made the most of an opportunity provided by Akhliddin Israilov, placing the ball into the top corner to set Kyrgyz Republic on their way.
“It was a very beautiful goal,” recalled Lux.
“(Before it) I had a couple of chances, hit the post, then I shot towards the top corner and the goalkeeper saved it.
“The goal was beautiful, but it also helped us to relax a little bit. We had scored the first goal, now we needed to score more against the Philippines, and from there everything went well, fortunately.”
Six minutes after half-time, Kyrgyz Republic’s target man struck again, this time turning on a sixpence before picking out the far top corner from 20 yards with the type of early strike that Lux recalls being warned against by some teammates.
“When we were training, I shot (early) once and the told me that I don’t give a pass, don’t share the ball and so on,” he said.
“I said: ‘you wait and see, I will score this type of goal’, and that's why it so happened that I was sure that I would score. It was a good day for us, and a good day for me.”
A good day became a great one with 13 minutes remaining, when a Murzaev strike hit the post and rolled into the path of Lux, who calmly slotted the ball into an empty net, competing Kyrgyz Republic’s maiden international hat-trick, and putting them into the last 16, despite Stephan Shrock’s late goal for the Philippines.
"I ran with (Mirlan Murzaev) so I could give him an option, and that he could give me a pass, or he could score himself,” said Lux. “It’s okay, he hit the post. It flew off the post and I scored a few seconds later.
“There are days like these - and it was very good in such a big game, of course – that you will not forget."
Despite a herculean effort against the tournament hosts, Kyrgyz Republic went out in a 3-2 extra-time defeat against UAE – “I don’t think about it. It’s in the past,” reasons Lux – before returning home as heroes.
Kyrgyz Republic President Sooronbay Jeenbekov called the team the pride of the country, with Krestinin earning the prestigious Order of the Danakar, and Lux one of five players to receive the national Medal of Dank amid a groundswell of euphoria.
“(The welcome home) was chaos, but in a positive way, of course,” Lux said of the nation’s delighted response to their team’s showing in the UAE.
“After that game, I also started to have a lot of followers, and they very warmly accepted us as heroes for them. Of course, the first time to go out of the group and go further there is good for everyone, for the country, it was good for the fans.
“The achievement was good for football in Kyrgyz Republic. Many thanks to them all for believing in us, cheering for us, they are fantastic fans.
Just over a year later, Lux remains a part of the Kyrgyz Republic squad as they aim for a return to the Asian Cup in 2023, with the now 31-year-old still plying his trade in in the lower leagues of German football for Türkspor Neu-Ulm.
But no matter what happens in the remainder of his career, he will always be remembered for that one magical afternoon in Dubai, where three kicks of a football transformed a nation from outsiders to Asian contenders, a legacy that continues to build momentum.
“We proved to everyone that we can play football,” reflects Lux.
“Good football was shown at this Asian Cup. “It was wonderful.”
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