Kazakhstan`s FC Astana brace for historic Champions League debut

 When Benfica won their second European Champions cup in 1962, spearheaded by legendary Portuguese striker Eusebio, Kazakhstan`s capital Astana was a rural Soviet outpost called Tselinograd without a football team to call its own. 

AFP| Last Updated: Sep 10, 2015, 07:11 AM IST
Kazakhstan`s FC Astana brace for historic Champions League debut

Astana: When Benfica won their second European Champions cup in 1962, spearheaded by legendary Portuguese striker Eusebio, Kazakhstan`s capital Astana was a rural Soviet outpost called Tselinograd without a football team to call its own. 

More than five decades later, six-year old FC Astana are Lisbon-bound as they prepare to face the Portuguese giants in a September 15 tie that will be the first UEFA Champions League group game contested by a team from the vast oil-rich Central Asian country, which only joined European football`s governing body in 2002. 

FC Astana booked their place in the group stages of European football`s elite club competition through a series of the hard-fought wins against Slovenian outfit NK Maribor and Cyprus` side APOEL. 

Sterner examinations now await a team that only won their first domestic title last season in the form of Group C opponents Benfica of Portugal, Turkey`s Galatasaray and Spain`s Atletico Madrid. 

"It is a big step for us just to be here playing these teams and some might say that this moment has come slightly early for us," said Stanimir Stoilov FC Astana`s manager, who was also the first coach to take a club from his homeland of Bulgaria into the group stages.

"You have to try very hard and if it does not work out, you draw your conclusions and hopefully get to try again some time," he told AFP by telephone. 

FC 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. 

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 -- Astana is now a sight to behold. 

It boasts a unique cityscape featuring futuristic buildings designed by leading international architects such as Britain`s Norman Foster and is set to host EXPO-2017, an international exposition that will be attended by governments, multinational firms and international organisations, themed on `energy of the future`.

Backed by Kazakhstan`s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna and sporting the yellow and blue colours of the national flag, FC Astana`s existence can be traced back to a writ issued by 75-year old strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

"When [Nazarbayev] set us the task of creating a club that could participate in the group stages of top European competitions, many thought it was unrealistic," says Kaisar Bekenov, the club`s General Manager. 

"Experience showed otherwise. We are a growing country. Sooner or later we had to enter the world of big football." 

Despite surprise success in making the group stages, FC Astana have not run away with the domestic league as it reaches its final phase. 

The club from the capital currently trail top-placed FC Kairat, the country`s traditional football powerhouse, by two points, albeit with a game in hand.

Manuel Veth, the editor of the post-Soviet-focused football website Futbolgrad, said clubs like Astana and rivals Kairat -- who this year only narrowly missed out on qualification for the group stages of the continent`s second-tier competition -- the Europa League -- could grow much more familiar to football fans in the coming years.

"Football clubs in Kazakhstan tend to be sponsored by big state concerns, like during Soviet times. The difference now is the government has woken up to the marketing opportunity football presents," says Veth.

"In this way, FC Astana serves as an important tool to promote the image of Kazakhstan abroad," Veth told AFP. 

In the West however, the Central Asian country`s name is still predominantly synonymous with British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen`s cult mockumentary `Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan`.

On the same day the draw for the group stages was made, Galatasaray`s German forward Lukas Podolski reacted by tweeting an image of Borat in a trademark obscene swimming costume with the comment underneath: "Can`t wait!"

Despite Podolski later tweeting an apology, fans of the club have pledged to whistle him when the Turkish team comes to town for FC Astana`s first Champions League home tie on September 30.