Bishkek: On the surface, a FIFA World Cup berth is not something which countries like Kyrgyz Republic dare dream of. The Central Asians, ranked 96 in the current FIFA World Ranking, have never reached even the continent's final qualifying round.
With the team's good run in the second round of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, however, the former Soviet republic now harbour genuine hopes of a breakthrough this time around.
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Aleksandr Krestinin's White Falcons have racked up two wins and a draw out of five outings which see them sit second in Group F, trailing leaders Japan by five points but leading Tajikistan on goal difference.
With three games left – against Myanmar, Mongolia and Japan – they can now aim at the least to progress to the third round for the first time as one of the five best second-placed finishers.
And if everything goes to plan, even a maiden World Cup qualification can't be ruled out as ace-striker Mirlan Murzaev pointed out.
"Our team played good football in this campaign and we gave it 100 percent in each match," the 30-year-old told FIFA.com.
"We rose to the tests and improved game after game. We lost important matches but still we have chances of making the next round.
"Our fans are always supporting us and we will try our best not to let them down. We will do our utmost to gain maximum points in the remaining matches. Our goals are always to reach the World Cup. Representing Kyrgyz Republic team at the World Cup is our dream."
In a sense, Kyrgyz Republic announced their emergence on the Asian scene on the road to Russia 2018. Having made little impression on the continental qualifying stage before, they made waves in the same stage four years ago managing four wins and two draws to finish third behind Australia and Jordan.
Despite failing to seal progression, a third-place finish in the campaign – which doubled as qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, was enough to see them through to the next stage of qualifying for the continental Finals. Murzaev was twice on target in the ensuing campaign, scoring match-winners against Macau and India respectively to help his side to their first-ever AFC Asian Cup.
"It was a holiday for our nation," said the Kyrgyz Republic No. 10, recalling the memorable night on which they made history by qualifying for UAE 2019.
"It was unprecedented joy for us, for every fan and player alike. I was happy for scoring the goals and I owed my thanks for my teammates for helping me."
Murzaev and Co. went on to excel in the AFC Asian Cup, storming into the Round of 16 only to narrowly lose 3-2 against hosts UAE after extra time. Murzaev scored their first goal midway through the first half, cancelling out the home side's opener to put the White Falcons on level terms.
"It was an enormous achievement for us to play in our first Asian Cup,” Murzaev said. "We put in a lot of effort in preparing for that campaign and we played well as a unit. It was not easy at all, but it was all about pride and emotion when you represented your country in such a high-level competition.
"As for the goal I scored against UAE, even today I can hardly express my feelings about it. It is a goal which I can (one day) show to my children.”
Hot off their brilliant Asian Cup performances, the team entered qualifying for Qatar 2022 seeking a fresh breakthrough.
Despite losing 1-0 to neighbouring Tajikistan in the opener, they bounced back to defeat Myanmar 7-0 before overcoming hosts Mongolia 2-1, with Murzaev again scoring the match-winning goal.
He was quick to laud head coach Krestinin for successfully moulding the players into a competitive team since taking over in 2014.
"He (Krestinin) has done everything he could to transform the team and make us into a strong side," Murzaev said of the 41-year-old Russian manager. "We have an amazingly friendly atmosphere within the team under him. I am grateful to him for all that he has done for us.
"We have the best squad and best coaching staff," he concluded.
"We can achieve the goals we have set through collective efforts. We take the game against our rivals and we never give up. You need to believe in your strengths and you should have confidence of winning regardless of who you play against."
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP, AFC
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