Being a sports junkie, one of the first things I decided to investigate were sporting fixtures. Astana has a bit of sporting pedigree – it hosted the Asian Winter Games in January of this year, and is home to the famous Astana cycling team that Lance Armstrong rode for. Much of the sporting infrastructure has been recently completed, meaning that national team events are moving up here from Almaty. The Kazakh national football team is one such entity.
Bizarrely, and going against the idea of the country being the heart of the Central Asian region, Kazakhstan competes in European football competition under the UEFA umbrella. They have done so with…well…very limited success. The fact that Wales are ahead of them in the world rankings should suggest the quality of my newest national team. They cannot qualify for next year’s European Championships in Poland & Ukraine.
Kazakhstan fun fact: Kazakhstan is the country that is the furthest east in UEFA.
They did, however, have one final qualifying match at home after we arrived for our Astana adventure. Their final game was against Austria in the remarkable Astana Arena. We were always going to go, but once we found out that halfway-line tickets were 1,000KZT – £4 – we eagerly snapped up the stubs. Like many of the new, futuristic buildings, it is illuminated at night, and looks spectacular. It is a 30,000-seater stadium that has a retractable roof amongst many other gadgets. The roof was closed for this game.
One potential reason for this may have been to echo and exaggerate the atmosphere generated by the small number of fans inside the ground. Not even close to a sell-out. Partly this is due to a sense of apathy and frustration amongst Kazakh nationals about the standard of their team, but the kick-off time didn’t help. Due to the time difference and the relative power of Austro-German television networks, the game kicked off on a Tuesday at 18:00CET. Which is 22:00 Kazakh time. Ridiculous, and thus understandable why there were so many empty seats. It even seemed like the military had been bussed in to fill out the ground a little bit.
Considering this, the atmosphere was pretty good. At either end of the ground were the hardcore supporters who, often without shirts protecting their precocious bellies, were dancing, chanting and singing loudly and proudly. The chants themselves were predictable enough – KA-ZAKH-STAN was the staple roar of choice – but most of the crowd tried to get involved, which made a change from the prawn sandwich brigades you now often find in the UK.
Owing to it being a relatively meaningless match as neither side could qualify (or is really that good), the match was fairly uninspiring for the first hour or so. Our local lads seemed content to soak up pressure from the schnitzel scoffers before ballooning the ball up to a poor man’s Peter Crouch. This all changed in the second half when, upon realising that Austria aren’t actually that good, the Kazakh players started to spray the ball around the astroturf surface majestically and precisely.
It finished as an ultimately entertaining 0-0 draw, with the last 25 minutes being end-to-end, chance-after-chance, almost amateurish fun. Kazakhstan’s Sergei Ostapenko name came closest to scoring when his towering header crashed against the crossbar, and his side were fully meriting of at least a point from this game. Austria did put the ball in the net in the first minute of injury time – well, the Kazakh ‘keeper punched a cross into another player, which ricocheted into the goal – but our feeling of horror quickly changed to relief when we saw the linesman holding his flag out for offside.
Of course, starting at 10pm meant that the game didn’t finish until close to midnight, and the fact that the ground is slightly outside the city resulted in us failing to get a taxi and walking much of the way home. 2am bedtime on a school night? Worth it to hear the booming voices proudly reciting the Kazakh national anthem. Worth it to feel the energy of being at an international football match once again. Worth it to see a futuristic, fascinating stadium.
Love you all