Astana: Bars spilled joyous supporters into the streets of oil-rich Kazakhstan`s capital Astana early on Thursday after the Central Asian country`s leading football club became its first to make the Champions League group stages.
FC Astana overcame the more fancied Apoel Nicosia in a dramatic game in the Cypriot capital on Wednesday night to make their mark on the history of club football`s most prestigious tournament, which is regularly dominated by the likes of Spain`s Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Leading 1-0 from the home leg, Astana fell behind to Apoel in Cyprus after an hour and had goalkeeper Nerad Erich to thank for keeping them in the game with two smart stops.
But midfielder Nemanja Maksimovich equalised with six minutes of normal time remaining to give Astana the lead on aggregate and secure the right to rub shoulders with European football`s major powers.
"It is difficult to describe how important last night`s match was to the development of football and sport as a whole in Kazakhstan," Darhan Kaletaev, chairman of Astana`s board of trustees told AFP by telephone on Thursday.
"This victory was achieved thanks to the hard work of the coaching staff, the football-loving people of Astana, and the support of the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev."
Astana`s emergence from obscurity into the elite of European football is reminiscent of the rise of the 600,000-strong city that hosts its 30,000 capacity stadium.
Astana was little more than a sleepy northern steppe town in 1997 when septuagenarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev made it the country`s capital over Almaty, a city of more than 1.5 million people some 1,000 kilometres away.
Recognised as the second coldest capital in the world after Mongolia`s Ulaanbaatar, Astana now boasts a unique cityscape featuring futuristic buildings designed by leading international architects such as Britain`s Norman Foster.
FC Astana was founded in 2009 and is backed by Kazakhstan`s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna.
The club won the Kazakh domestic league for the first time last year, eclipsing teams such as Shakter Karagandy and Kairat Almaty -- the country`s traditional football powerhouses since Soviet times.
With a blue and yellow strip that echoes the country`s national flag, FC Astana is unmistakably a government project, and has the cash to add foreign imports such as 29-year-old striker Foxi Kethevoama from the Central African Republic to a core roster of homegrown players.
While the club lacks experience playing in elite tournaments, few opposing teams will relish the journey to the what will be by far the most easterly city ever to host a Champions` League group game.
In Astana itself, meanwhile, popular amazement is giving way to growing ambition.
"Now the grand masters of football will come to us," said a man called Pavel walking the streets of the Kazakh capital on Thursday in an orange jacket and jeans.
"But we cannot be their whipping boys," he told AFP. "Everyone here will be behind FC Astana!"
The draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League will take place in Monaco at 1645 GMT.