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Asian Eye – Turkmenistan: Forever the bridesmaids?

They say lighting never strikes twice. Not the case for the Turkmenistan national team – for them, it never seems to stop striking. Once again, the lowly Turkic state, ranked 166th in the World by FIFA, flattered to deceive, crashing to a 2-1 defeat in the AFC Challenge Cup final at the hands of North Korea.

For the North Koreans, the rewards are rich – the payoff for victory in this competition is a guaranteed spot at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. For the Green Men of Turkmenistan, it is just another heartbreaking “what might have been?” The Turkmen team have been here before.

Two years ago, in Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan fluffed their lines against their exact same rivals, losing on penalties that time after a 1-1 draw.

This time around, they came into the game looking impossible to stop. They had won all but one game in the eight-team tournament, they had defeated a very tricky-looking Philippines side in the semi-finals, and looked like a team with a purpose.

And, in the final, in Nepali capital Kathmandu, they seemed to be ready to take out the Goliath-like North Koreans, who had yet to concede a goal in this tournament.

A missed penalty evaporated the dream 

The Turkmens announced their intent when Berdy Shamuradov scored past a bewildered Ri Myoung-guk inside the first two minutes. Although North Korea went on to equalise, an unlikely Turkmenistan victory seemed all but certain when they won a penalty with nine minutes to go.

Farcically, though, Shamuradov went from hero of the piece to villain, ballooning his spot kick effort over the bar. The resulting goal kick led to a North Korean attack that saw them win a penalty of their own, which they made no such errors with.

Faltering at the last hurdle is now becoming an embarrassing habit for the Green Men. They failed to qualify past the group stages in 2008, but two consecutive final losses is a bitter pill to swallow when the Cup was so close on both occasions.

For a nation as small such as Turkmenistan, the win would have meant the World to them – they have only ever qualified for one single major tournament, the 2004 Asian Cup in China. A ticket to the 2015 competition in Australia would have been the stuff dreams are made of.

All is not lost for the Turkmens – they still have a chance to qualify for 2015 through the preliminary rounds, though they may have to face some very stern opponents there.

Possible rivals for one of the eleven available spots include traditionally strong teams like Iran, Iraq and China, and also the in-form Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Uzbekistan.

Turkmen football is growing 

Hopes will remain high in Turkmenistan, though, as fans know their team is a lot stronger than their FIFA ranking would have most people believe.

Although the vast majority of the team plays in the fairly puny Yokary Liga, club football is not a lost cause in the country - Turkmen teams have been known to progress in AFC competitions – HTTU Ashgabat have reached the Group stages of the precursor the AFC Champions League twice, and made it to the semi-finals of the AFC President’s Cup in 2010.

City rivals FC Ashgabat have made the President’s Cup semis twice, while current league champions FC Balkan have also performed well in AFC competitions.

A select few of the young national team players ply their trade abroad. Green Men fans are hopeful that their rising star will come good, the 20 year-old Wahyt Orazsakhedov, currently playing for the youth team of Rubin Kazan, one of the top teams in Russia.

Also of note is another youngster, Skonto Riga’s Ruslan Mingazow, who looked very bright in the Challenge Cup this year.

The fact that much of the national team is so young is a cause for cautious optimism. FC Ashgabat’s attacking midfielder Didar Durdyyev and FC Balkan’s goalkeeper Mekan Saparov are still in their teens, but are so promising that they have already received senior squad call-ups.

It is easy to be skeptical for Turkmen fans, though. Failure has so often blighted the team so often in their short history, but the fact that they are getting to the finals of competitions should be of some comfort to them.

The raw ingredients are there – a relatively good footballing infrastructure, a youthful squad, a fervent desire to succeed. All that they lack now is belief.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven.

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