Meet FC Astana, the tiny club with big backing to boost Kazakhstan's profile
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- "First of all, we feel we are representing our country in Europe, and we are proud to do that," FC Astana club president Sayan Khamitzanov said in a news conference the week before his team's UEFA Champions League group stage debut against Benfica. "After that, we are representing our city."
Astana is a disorientating place, but the fastest way to root yourself is by taking the elevator up Bayterek ("tall poplar tree" in Kazakh). At the top of the 97-meter (318 feet) tower, built to represent the tree of life and crowned with a sphere resembling a golden egg, you can place your hand in a gilded imprint of the palm of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan and instigator behind the otherworldly scene that unfurls below.
It is a mind-bending panorama; futuristic buildings are dotted between a range of construction projects whose scope defies comprehension. To the southwest, a mile down the road from the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr entertainment centre, the gleaming curves of the Astana Arena can be made out beyond a skyline of cranes. Beyond that, right out on the limits of this young city, lies what seems an infinite expanse of steppe.
In the 1,100 miles directly between FC Astana's home stadium and the Caspian Sea, there is not a single significant settlement. Since the UEFA Champions League playoff round concluded Aug. 26, this has come to represent the final frontier of top-level European football.
"Nobody expected us to be in the Champions League instantly," Kaisar Bekenov, FC Astana's general manager, said. "This year, the maximum objective was to reach the Europa League group stage, but when our chance came, we didn't hesitate."
The Astana Arena might have looked still in the late summer light, but within its walls, Bekenov is in perpetual motion. He is an urbane figure with a degree in football business administration from the University of Liverpool, and he has barely had time to sit since Nemanja Maksimovic tapped in the goal against Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia and gave FC Astana its place in history.
Kazakhstan, which became a member of UEFA in 2002, now has a team in the Champions League group stage for the first time. On Tuesday, it will make its debut against Benfica in Lisbon, 3,830 miles away.
The club's identity has pricked up more than a few ears because FC Astana was only founded in 2009, originally as Lokomotiv Astana. In 2013, it took its current name and became part of the state-owned Astana Presidential Sports club, whose constituent parts include the well-known Astana cycling team.
The sports club was set up at President Nazarbayev's instigation and is sponsored by Samruk-Kazyna, the government's sovereign wealth fund and a source of money that, with numerous assets projected to reach $200 billion in the coming years, doesn't look likely to dry up any time soon. FC Astana won its first league title last season, and there is a sense the floodgates have opened.
"Presenting our nation to the world was one of the objectives in this club's creation," Bekenov said. "The president already understood the power and influence sport has that other things cannot provide. He put forward the objective of building a strong, European-level football club in Astana, and I think, step-by-step we are moving towards that.
"We have seen the success of our colleagues from the cycling team, and if we can add to that from the football angle, then it will show the best side of our city to tourists and investors."
FC ASTANA HAS BEEN designed to bear the standard of the modern Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has numerous critics in the west. His nation has a questionable human rights record, and the president himself has been accused of siphoning millions of dollars from the oil revenues that are beginning to make this country, independent since 1991, a major global player. But development has been rapid since Astana, previously a remote regional town, replaced Almaty as capital in 1997 and took its current name.
The city is a curious and not yet seamless mix of crumbling and hyper-new. It will host Expo-2017, and the ambition for Astana, along with all those who represent it, is to lead the way on a global level. This desire is visible around every corner. It is a blank canvas in the middle of the steppe whose commandeering of resources and manpower divides opinion but speaks of its intended role as ambassador for both country and region.
Stanimir Stoilov is the man tasked with guiding the football team to the top. The Bulgarian was offered the first-team manager's job 15 months ago, having impressed the club's board when his Botev Plovdiv side beat FC Astana 6-0 on aggregate in the club's first European outing, a Europa League first qualifying round tie. Stoilov's presence has coincided with rapid improvement -- after Villarreal prevented an immediate qualification for Europa League group stage last year, FC Astana won the league title and then beat NK Maribor, HJK Helsinki and APOEL this summer en route to the Champions League.
"My job was to win the championship -- that was the first priority," Stoilov said while sitting beside the 3G surface that will host Galatasaray, Atletico Madrid and Benfica in the coming months.
"But when we played Maribor, I saw that they weren't taking us very seriously. They seemed to think it would be easy, and it showed in their performance [FC Astana won 3-1 at home, 3-2 on aggregate]. After we beat them, we started to believe and gain momentum, and things became easier."
STOILOV'S MIXTURE OF DOMESTIC talents such as Tanat Nassarbayev and Bauyrzhan Dzolchiev (who scored a brilliant, first-leg header against APOEL) and a sprinkling of foreign talents has struck a balance.
He can call upon Foxi Kethevoama, a Central African playmaker and one of the stars in a quickly improving Kazakh league, as well as Serbian Under-20 World Cup winner Maksimovic, the vaunted young Ghanaian striker Patrick Twumasi and the experienced Slovenia right-back Branko Ilic. Only five foreigners are allowed to play in domestic games, but FC Astana are beginning to attract the quality they want.
"It's getting easier," Bekenov said. "Bringing in top-class guys [Twumasi and Maksimovic] was really hard. Not all of them have heard of Kazakhstan, and not all of them know we're in Europe. Obviously, many of them expect extra pay for coming to a different place. Now, perhaps we are getting to the point where we can bring our own aces here and start negotiations from the stronger side."
The intentions are clear, but nobody connected with FC Astana conducts themselves with any arrogance; this remains a club aware of its minnow status. As Bekenov said, "We are not there yet ... but we love to learn."
There is a parallel with Ukrainian football around the turn of the century when Shakhtar Donetsk clawed themselves a foothold in the European game. Despite their region's unraveling political situation, the club has been a Champions League mainstay ever since, not to mention UEFA Cup winners in 2008-09.
With 835,000 inhabitants, Astana has 100,000 fewer than Donetsk but is growing constantly with a young population that has, in the cases of most with whom you talk, moved from elsewhere in Kazakhstan to take advantage of new opportunities.
"Shakhtar is one of the benchmarks we are following," Bekenov said. "They first qualified for the Champions League in 2000 and are considered to be a major European force. It shows that in a post-Soviet country, you can build a strong European team. But for now, an even better example might be BATE Borisov -- this is their fifth participation in the group stage, and if we can reach those numbers, then we can put our next goals in place."
THOSE CLOSER TO HOME still need to be convinced. The Rixos President Hotel is Astana's most glamorous, and 40 Kazakh media (usually only four or five attend domestic games, which tend to attract attendances in the low thousands) have been invited for lunch and a news conference a week before the Benfica game. In reality, closer to 60 crammed into the meeting room and watched a montage of the team's Champions League goals before asking questions of Nussarbayev, Stoilov, Khamitzanov and the team's goalkeeper, Nenad Eric.
There is palpable excitement, and questions vary in tone. Ticketing is discussed: supporters are expected to attend from all over Kazakhstan to create a full house of 30,000 when Galatasaray visit Sept. 30. Stoilov is asked about reports that he took a sizable bonus from the board after the win over APOEL but suggests the claims were wide of the mark.
What about transfers? FC Astana had no chance of adding to their squad before the group stage, as the Kazakh transfer window closed at the start of July.
Khamitzanov is even asked directly how much money he expects to spend in the winter. There is a clear appetite in the room, bordering on impatience, to see this progress built upon.
AFTER THE PRESS CONFERENCE, Khamitzanov speaks separately with ESPN FC. He is a soft-spoken figure who rarely grants interviews, and his own back story offers a glimpse of Astana's low-key footballing past. Khamitzanov was general secretary of Kazakhstan's football federation until taking his current role two years ago, but before that, he was president of Zhenis (since renamed FC Astana-1964), the city's other major club.
"Our group rivals understand that we are debutants, and that is why it is easier psychologically for them," he said. "But not any team can reach this stage, and as far as we have seen from interviews they have given, they will give us respect and not underestimate us."
On the relationship with Samruk-Kazyna, he suggested the purse strings will be loosened further for Champions League football given the chance.
"We formed our budget for this year with the expectation of playing in the Europa League," he said. "According to these aims, they gave us money. But if the transfer window in Kazakhstan was now open, of course we would have received more money from Samruk-Kazyna."
There are numerous variables -- including oil prices, which are currently low enough to introduce an element of caution to those hailing the country's speed of growth -- but reading between the lines, it is not hard to conclude that success and investment will be inextricably linked.
THE BAGGAGE HALL AT Shymkent airport is poorly lit, cramped and insufferably hot for the time of evening. After a 100-minute flight (600 miles) to the south of the country, Stoilov and his squad look tired. Shymkent is a short drive from the Uzbekistan border and has been described as "like the wild west" by one friend in Astana, but the immediate dangers are rather more prosaic.
FC Astana are a point shy of leaders Kairat Almaty in the Premier League's championship round with a game in hand and face one of Kazakhstan's more difficult away fixtures against Ordabasy just a day and a half before traveling to Lisbon. If they are to build toward the level of sustained excellence envisioned by Bekenov, then with just one Champions League place available, the title must be retained.
"Maybe I will change three or four players," Stoilov said. "We will see."
The sheen and impersonality of Astana seem half a world away here. The rough edges of Kazakhstan's third city show another side of the country, but its stadium seems familiar; it is the kind of gaping 1960s bowl doled out to provincial cities by the old Soviet government, a relic of its time that somehow appears awesome and bland at the same time. Outside the grounds, supporters drink horse milk served from buckets cooled to offset the 95-degree heat. Inside, Stoilov names a starting XI missing at least four of the players who can expect to face Benfica.
On a bone-dry surface, they begin uncertainly. Two Benfica scouts have flown over for last-minute checks, but it is hard to tell whether the opening goal, scored by the hosts, owes more to FC Astana's failings than the fact that Stoilov has made three alterations to his defense. Stoilov's side level before halftime and score again on the hour.
Everything is going to plan, but Ordabasy equalise unexpectedly and then, when Eldos Akhmetov is sent off with 20 minutes to play, FC Astana's title hopes look to be nosediving.
Some of the players rested ahead of the long trip to Portugal soon enter as substitutes, but Ordabasy waste chances and finally, it takes a high-wire piece of escapology to get the visitors out of jail. In the final minute of four added, Dzholchiev flicks on a corner, and it is Nusserbayev, who spent five years playing for Ordabasy, on hand to head in the kind of winner champions tend to find.
"It could have been a disaster, but we did it," Stoilov said back at the airport. Part one of the balancing act has come off. Now their loftier, European concerns can take hold.
FC ASTANA WILL NOT win this season's Champions League; a grapple for third place in their group would be achievement enough. But there is an inexorable feel about their progress and also a sense that, with a degree of national football culture to fall back on and the carrot of potential Champions League involvement, they might in time prove a more attractive prospect for players than some of the cash-laden clubs in the Gulf or Asia.
The mind turns to a quote from Bekenov four days earlier while the stadium around him was being painted, polished and scrubbed.
"When people as experienced and skilful as these, with the powers they have -- including political powers -- all merge together to attain one big goal," Bekenov said, "usually they get success."
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.