For many, Central Asia is the land of the mysterious and unknown that seems to be isolated or separated from the rest of Asia and the world. People think that what happens in Central Asia, stays in Central Asia and that the nations a part of the region are authoritarian and closed. To a large extent, these nations are indeed authoritarian and slightly separated from the rest of the world, however, for me, Central Asia is the most interesting part of the Earth. Huge mountains, beautiful landscapes, amazingly deep cultures and heritages, welcoming people, you get the idea. However, though it seems that Central Asia is very uniform and constant in terms of the qualities of its constituents, the truth couldn’t be more distant.

On one side, you have Kazakhstan, one of the largest and richest countries in the entire world that have been ruled by a single leader since it was formed. On the other side, you have Kyrgyzstan, a small but serene nation that is 90% mountains and is considered to be the only proper democracy in the region. On the flipside of my previous statement that said that Central Asian nations aren’t very similar, you could argue that they are. The people are quite close; the nations are strong allies and they all share a love of football. Yes, you read it right, Central Asian nations are actually infatuated with football, and it is the most popular sport in the region by a landslide.

To those not familiar with football in Asia, that might come as a bit of a shock, whereas for those who are fans of Central Asian football, that is just a fact. To help out the former bunch, I’ll be talking about why the ‘Stans’ can, and are turning into footballing powerhouses, and how they will possibly take over the ‘Asian football giants’ throne from East Asia.

Central Asia consists of primarily five former Soviet countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. However, Kazakhstan is a part of UEFA, meaning that Kazakh football will not be mentioned in this piece. Along with the remaining four, Afghanistan and Iran are also parts of the Central Asian Football Association, which is the governing body in the region. Due to Iran being established as one of the best football nations in Asia though, it won’t be talked about here.

To sum up, I’ll be putting forward my thoughts on why Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have the potential to be the next big names in Asian football, both individually, and as a collective.

Afghanistan

To say football in Afghanistan has been full of turmoil is a massive understatement. Wars and terrorism have absolutely ravaged the nation since the ‘70s. Sport in Afghanistan has been subdued due to these, and understandably, football in the country isn’t in the best of states. The league is regularly interrupted by terrorism, the national team is ranked 145 by FIFA, and has never reached higher than 122, so on and so forth.

However, with some stability returning to the country, football seems to have found a place. The Afghan Premier League was established in 2012, and has been praised by the Afghan government and High Peace Council, for its unifying bond and potential to bring peace to the country. In 2013, the Afghan national team won the South Asian Football Championship, defeating India in the process.

Afghanistan’s campaign to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup was also impressive by their standards. After progressing to the third and final round of qualifying, Afghanistan missed out by only four points as they finished behind Jordan and Vietnam.

Another thing that goes in the favour of the Afghans is the players at their disposal. The national team has a host of players playing in Europe that have opted to represent them, instead of registering as members of European federations. Currently, the Afghan team has players playing in Germany, England, the Netherlands and Sweden among others.

Help from FIFA, an increase in sponsors and support from other nations has helped football infrastructure in Afghanistan to grow by a significant margin. Still, though, football in Afghanistan is a long way away from being considered a sleeping giant, let alone one that is awake. The team still plays its home games in nearby Tajikistan due to safety concerns, and football in the country is largely unorganised.

Like they say though, life is nothing without hope, and all we can do is hope that things get better in Afghanistan, and like their cricket team, their football team too gets better!

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is considered to be a hermit kingdom worldwide, and very little is known about the country. In the whole of Central Asia, it has the notorious reputation of being the country that is most separated from the rest of the region, continent and world. Former President Saparmurat Niyazov’s title of Turkmenbasy, and that as of one of the world’s most repressive dictators meant that despite decent economic progress, everything else in Turkmenistan suffered.

Football is no exception. The sport is indeed the most popular one in the country, but Turkmen football hasn’t made any major strides in Asian or world football. The country has never qualified for a World Cup, its clubs have never won any Asian club competitions, and Turkmenistani individual footballing personalities are more famous than Turkmen clubs or national team. Russian-Turkmen manager Kuban Berdyev is regarded as one of the best coaches to have graced Russia, whereas fellow coach Valeri Nepomniachi was immortalised after he led Cameroon to the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals.

Similar to Afghanistan though, football in Turkmenistan is also on the rise. The champions of the nation’s top league, the Yokary League, Altyn Asyr are just two steps away from reaching the finals of the AFC Cup, and will play India’s Bengaluru in the inter-zone play-off semi-final around a month from now. This is the club’s first time in the knockouts of any Asian competition, a new benchmark for Turkmen football.

The Turkmen national team has also qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup for the first time in 15 years, and just the second time ever. With players such as Slavia Prague’s Rustam Mingazov and almost an entire team filled with players from a dominant Altyn Asyr team, big things are expected from the Turkmenistan national team next year in the UAE. Even though the group the Turkmens are in isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination due to it containing Japan and fellow Central Asians Uzbekistan, a strong and valiant effort will still be expected.

With Altyn Asyr emerging as a Central Asian powerhouse, and Turkmenistan qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup, it’s safe to say that Turkmen football is heading in the right direction. Again, like Afghanistan though, football in the nation is plagued with a fair share of problems too. The country’s status as one of the most secretive and isolated nations in the world means that its citizens don’t have access to new technology, equipment and don’t have the best infrastructure.

In the next part of this series, we will talk about Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two nations that already are and have a much better chance of becoming football powerhouses than Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

*this is the first part of a three-part series that talks about the status of football in Central Asia.