This is a story of the new and the old. Of the fast development and modern projection of a petro-state; of a glitzy, planned capital in a land whose complicated narrative weaves early human history with ancient Scythia, Genghis Kahn and the Soviet Union.
And, for our purposes, with an upstart, well-moneyed football club that is only the latest extension of the theme.
FC Astana, whose maiden Champions League group stage campaign begins Tuesday in Lisbon, have existed a mere six years and only took on their current name in 2011. By then, however, they’d already come second in the Kazakhstan Premier League and won the first of their two domestic cups.
MORE ON THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Sportsnet soccer panel: Picks and predictions || Man City has improved by becoming ‘more City’ || Analytics: The strange case of Borussia Monchengladbach || FC Astana adds rich narrative to Champions League || 10 players to watch in the first round || 8 matches to watch in the first round || Spanish clubs look to reign supreme in Europe || Champions League: 5 stories to watch this week
After finishing atop the standings in 2014 (the Kazakh season runs from March to November) they entered the Champions League for the first time at the second qualifying round, where they beat Slovenia’s Maribor 3-2 over two legs. A triumph over Finland’s HJK followed, and late last month they edged APOEL of Cyprus 2-1.
“This is a very big win for Astana and for all football fans in Kazakhstan,” remarked manager Stanimir Stoilov, whose stewardship of the side ensured the country would for the first time be represented in the competition proper. “We will try our best in the group stage and I think we can get some points.”
If he sounds confident it’s because he and his players simply aren’t accustomed to losing. They’ve experienced defeat just four times in 2015 and, with a victory at home to Kairat next weekend, will reclaim top spot in the Premier League.
Given their home record this calendar year the result may be a foregone conclusion. Astana haven’t lost a single game at home since September 2014. More than 23,000 fans watched their 3-1 win over Maribor in July and a capacity crowd of 30,000 took in the 1-0 victory over APOEL in the play-off round.
Opened during the club’s inaugural season Astana Arena features a retractable roof that protects a grass surface. Its bending, silver and glass exterior wouldn’t look at all out of place in western Europe, and on the occasion of its unveiling Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev delivered the ceremonial first kick.
A former first secretary of the Soviet-era Communist Party, Nazarbayev is the only head of state his country has ever known. He has guided Kazakhstan from its independence through the heady days of high oil prices to the more recent difficulties of downturns and economic stimulus, and while the CIA refers to his government as “authoritarian” he is largely embraced by Western powers.
Nazarbayev is a micromanager (he co-wrote the lyrics to the national anthem), and while he governs as a sort of imperial father figure of the Soviet era he is a father who, wanting to be liked by his teenage children, gives them everything.
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.
Astana, which literally means “The Capital,” is essentially the architectural project of the late Kisho Kurokawa, who also designed Singapore’s Republic Plaza and St. Petersburg’s Zenit Stadium. Its cityscape is ultra-modern to the point of ostentatious; the KazMunayGas headquarters, for example, could substitute as a luxury hotel on the Vegas Strip.
It’s important to see FC Astana, and the general project of Kazakhstani football, in this context—as part of what the national planners hope to project westward. State-owned KazMunayGas, incidentally, is part of the same sovereign wealth fund that controls the club. And its chairman, Umirzak Shukeyev, is a former mayor of the city.
Not that he or the fund or Nazarbayev, himself, introduced football to this region of Central Asia. That was done, not surprisingly, by British merchants along the eastern frontier more than a century ago, and club football has been prominent in Kazakhstan since the 1930s.
FC Astana are the contemporary manifestation of that history, hastened, like any other national enterprise in the country, by oil, centralization and a self-image as recent and exaggerated as its past is ancient and complicated.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be in the Champions League. In fact, it only makes the story richer.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter