by Manuel Veth
The showdown between Celtic and Shakhter Karagandy for this season’s Champions League group stage has provided an unlikely storyline. For the first time, a club from Kazakhstan could qualify for the group stage of UEFA’s premium competition. Even if Celtic manages to overcome the 2-0 deficit in Glasgow the Kazakh club is assured a place in the Europa League group stage.
As David McArdle points out in his article on Shakhter Karagandy on Futbolgrad.com Kazakhstan’s independence was somewhat unwanted. After the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Football Federation of Kazakhstan and its major club Kairat Almaty were major proponents of keeping the Soviet Vysshaia Liga (Supreme League) alive.
These were the most turbulent times of football in the former Soviet space, as football politicians scrambled to carve out their empires in the newly created independent states. The head of the Soviet Sport Ministry (Goskomsport) Viacheslav Koloskov also had a large influence in keeping the Soviet Supreme League alive.
In January 1992 a new league was drawn up which included several clubs from Central Asia. Kazakhstan was not the only country that moved towards a reluctant independence, as the new league would have included seven clubs from Central Asian republics: Pamir Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Kopetdag Ashkhabad (Turkmenistan), Alga Bishkek, Pakhtakor Tashkent, Novbakhor Namangan, Neftianik Fergana (all Uzbekistan) and Kairat Alma-Ata from Kazakhstan were all given spots in this new proposed league.
Only Pamir, Pakhtakor, and Kairat had previously participated in the Soviet Supreme League. Tellingly Kazakhstan was only given one spot in this new league whereas Uzbekistan received three.
Even in the time of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan was not deemed a centre of football, and instead was most famous for producing Olympic wrestlers. But as political forces struggled over power within the remnants of Soviet football, it soon became apparent that the idea of a single competition was dead.
That Kazakhstan would have only received a single starter in the competition is somewhat telling. Although Kairat was a mainstay in the Soviet Supreme League, the club wasn’t considered a major force in the competition, and throughout the existence of the Soviet Union only won one Soviet Federation Cup (League Cup), a worthless trophy since it did not lead to European qualification.
Kairat claims to be the only club from Kazakhstan (and the first Soviet club) to have won an international competition when they beat Rapid Bucharest to secure the European Railworks Cup in 1971. The Railworks Cup; however, was not an official UEFA competition and indeed no club from Kazakhstan managed to qualify for a UEFA competition during the time of the Soviet Union.
Even after Kazakhstan reached independence European glory was not meant to be, as the newly independent football federation of Kazakhstan instead became a member of the Asian Football Confederation.
Kazakh football’s slow rise
It was not until 2002-03 season that Kazakhstan became the 52nd member of UEFA. As a new member, the country had to start from the bottom of the UEFA co-efficient ranking, which determines the number of starters every country gets in European competitions. Since its inception into UEFA, Kazakhstan has made steady progress from 52nd position in 2002-03 to 38th position for the current season.
Indeed the country has invested heavily in its football infrastructure. Kazakhstan’s new capital Astana, which is Kazakh for capital but in so many ways sounds like the name of a newly discovered planet in the Andromeda system, not only sounds like a foreign planet but indeed also looks like a science fiction movie set come to life. The capital is also home to one of Europe’s most modern stadiums, the Astana Arena.
The Astana Arena cost US$ 185 million and opened in 2009. This stadium was partly designed by the British architecture company Buro Happold, also responsible for the renovation of the British Museum in London. With its slick design the arena in many ways resembles a landed UFO and fits in well with the cosmic design of the capital.
The arena is the centrepiece of Kazakh football development. Almost all of the European competition matches are played in Astana, as many clubs in Kazakhstan still compete in Soviet-era stadia. FC Aktobe, for example, is one of the few clubs that plays its European Cup games in its own stadium, and Kairat Almaty’s stadium was renovated in 2011.
But Shakhter Karagandy, the current champion, has to compete in Astana as their own stadium did not meet UEFA standards. Karagandy is located about 200 kilometres outside of Astana but the club’s international endeavour has so far united all of Kazakhstan making the Astana Arena a formidable fortress.
The Kazakh national team also plays all of its home games in the Astana Arena. So far the country has failed to reach a major competition, and it seems as if that the decision by Kazakhstan’s officials to join UEFA has made it even more difficult to qualify for a major competition any time soon.
Perhaps Shakhter Karagandy’s European 2013-14 campaign will lay the foundation for the rise of one of Europe’s most remote football outposts.
Storck was, however, able to attract the Kazakh-born Konstantin Engel from Energie Cottbus and Heinrich Schmidtgal from Greuther Fürth (now Fortuna Dusseldorf) to play for their country of birth. Both players were born in Kazakhstan as part of the large Volga German community that were deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin during World War II.
The Czech Miroslav Beránek has since replaced Storck but the “Germans” and Schmidtgal especially have become stars in a country that was formerly a place of exile for their forefathers.
The Kazakh national team is still struggling to make its mark on the international scene, and perhaps the decision to compete in UEFA rather than in the less competitive AFC could mean that the country is still years away from reaching a major international competition. But Shakther Karagandy’s performance in this years qualification rounds to the Champions League could become a watershed moment in Kazakh football.
Even if Shakhter fails to reach the Champions League, qualification for the UEFA Europa League is secure, guaranteeting at least another six matches on the international stage and great international experience for some of Kazakhstan’s national players.
It will be interesting to see what Shakhter’s progress on the European level will mean not only for the club, but also the league as well as the national team.
For the Kazakhstan Premier League this could be a great development, because young talent from the surrounding republics as well as South America might come to the league to be spotted by bigger clubs in Western Europe. New talent could make the league more competitive which means that young Kazakh players would be better prepared for international duty.
Also the European Championships have recently expanded to accommodate 24 rather than 16 teams. This will mean that almost half of the continent will participate in the tournament. For Kazakhstan the 2016 tournament in France will perhaps be too early in their development, but perhaps 2020 might be a realistic goal for the Central Asian country to finally participate for the first time in an international tournament.
If the country does indeed qualify for Euro 2020 perhaps it will be Shakhter Karagandy’s European 2013-14 campaign that will lay the foundation for the rise of one of Europe’s most remote football outposts.
Manuel Veth is a new contributor to Just Football specialising in the economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football. Read more from him at Futbolgrad and follow him on Twitter @homosovieticus