Just when we thought we had settled back into the school routine, we discovered that the country had been invaded. This is the tale of the arrival of a collection of funny-talking, funny-walking, heavy-drinking men and woman from an island far, far away.
Kazakhstan has had a history of being invaded or ruled by other tribes and nations. From the times of Ghengis Khan and his Mongols, who conquered the area in the 13th Century, through to the Soviet rule throughout the vast majority of the last hundred years, this vast terrain has often had to listen to the voices of others shout and sing their way through her lands. More recently, they have had border issues with China, the latest of which resulted in the discovery of a dozen or so dead Kazakh border guards in the east of the country. Though Astana itself is on the whole very safe, other parts of the country unfortunately have more serious problems with defending their country.
This latest invasion, however, was readily accepted and even welcomed by the citizens of Astana, particularly those who own pubs and bars. The reason? The Irish were coming to town.
The main sporting roads lead to Rio de Janeiro over the next few years. Before the next Olympic Games in 2016 is the small matter of the FIFA football World Cup. Qualifying for the 2014 extravaganza began for European teams on September 7th. In spite of its geographical proximity, Kazakhstan is classed as a European football nation, so has the privilege of playing some of the continent’s superpowers.
I wouldn’t call Ireland a major footballing power, particularly after what we witnessed, but it was nonetheless a fixture that interested us as British expats in Astana. More so when the tickets were a quite frankly ludicrous 1000T, or £4. The Irish fans we met told us that they would have to pay 10 times that figure to watch the return match in Dublin.
The travelling supporters are certainly not as stupid as the pub owners of Astana may think, either. A new Irish bar has recently opened, which we searched for as a natural place to go before the football match. We realised why the Irish fans had avoided it when we noticed that a Guinness cost 2450T. £11. For one pint of the black stuff. We found them in a bar less than 200m away that sold good beer for one fifth of the price. As you would expect, they were a lot of fun to be around.
The game itself started at 10pm local time in order to satisfy European TV viewers who care enough about the beautiful game to watch two technically poor footballing nations. Initially it was a rather turgid affair that was living up nicely to the 0-0 prediction suggested by a few football pundits. That was until the hero of the hour, Captain Fantastic, whose name of blah rolls off the tongue, soared highest to glance a header into the rippling net. It is the first goal that I have seen Kazakhstan score, and the crowd went wild.
It is also the only goal by Kazakhstan that I have seen. They defended heroically in the second half, against some admittedly woeful Irish attempts at attacking, and held out until the 89th minute, when a penalty broke local hearts. This was then made much, much worse when the visiting side somehow concocted a winner a minute later, in the final minute of the match. The whole crowd was depressed. The Kazakhs had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; the Irish had been appalling against a team ranked 116 nations below them.
We celebrated in true Irish style, swapping tales over beers and consoling our Kazakh friends. The Irish were very sympathetic towards their defeated opponents, and also fascinating characters – one had only missed one home match in 43 years…because he had suffered a heart attack. He asked if he could have an ambulance to take him to the game, and was livid when they refused. Their commitment to the Irish cause is unwavering and very special.
A lovely weekend was spent enjoying the sunshine on the Ishim river and relaxing outdoors. This year we are aware of the harsh winter that is in front of us, so know that we need to spend every possible hour outside until the cold begins to bite.
So Ireland had a lucky escape, and flew back to Kazakhstan with three points but their egos very much bruised. The Kazakh team did their nation proud – hopefully they can get a more positive result when Austria visit the Astana Arena next month. On a personal note, it was nice to see more English speakers braving the unknown to come and enjoy Kazakhstan. The fans we spoke to were unanimous in their praise for and surprise with Astana, and will perhaps encourage more people to come and visit European football’s most easterly outpost.
Love you all