The Champions League Lands in Kazakhstan
FC Astana is Kazakhstan's first club to make the Champions League. They are also the country's best shot at making a positive impression with its neighbors.
On Wednesday tiny FC Astana welcomes the world for the first ever Champions League match in Kazakhstan.
First-timers enter the Champions League all the time, including teams from smaller, struggling European nations such as last season's Ludogorets Razgrad from Bulgaria.
But when they do, they often aren't pitted against a club that not only helped shape their success but could also serve as their inspiration. But that's the case for FC Astana as they host Turkey's Galatasaray. And first round Champions League matches between the two weakest teams in the group don't usually offer the kind of heightened political overtones that this one does either.
FC Astana is part of the state-owned Astana Presidential Sports club, created at the behest of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's first and only—but not exactly Democratically-elected—President, has been in office since 1991. In this year's election, which Nazarbayev won with an alarming 97.7% of the vote, human rights groups accused Kazakhstani authorities of systematically repressing the opposition. He has made it his mission to promote Kazakhstan and its relatively new capital Astana—previously called Akmola, which replaced Almaty as the capital in 1997. The creation of FC Astana only six years ago was part of this effort.
"First of all, we are representing our country in Europe, and we are proud to do that," club president Sayman Khamitzhanov said at a news conference before their opening Champion's League match, a 2-0 loss against Benfica.
The efforts FC Astana has made to improve itself as a club will come full circle on Wednesday. The match with Galatasaray will be their best chance to take points in the group stage, but it will also be a case of the student attempting to surpass the master.
On April 29, 2014, representatives from Galatasaray and FC Astana, signed a Memorandum of Cooperation. These types of agreements are fairly common, and this one would provide for an exchange of experience in sports management.
According to FC Astana's owner's site, the two clubs "declared readiness to forge partnerships and the share experiences in development of business processes" and "intend to cooperate in facilitating the exchange of experience on sports management professionals, as well as technical and organizational support in sports training, seminars, lectures and forums."
Reports afterward stated Galatasaray intended to open up an academy in Kazakhstan. Then came rumours that Samruk-Kazyna, a Kazakhstani national state fund which owns FC Astana, was preparing to be Galatasaray's shirt sponsor. Neither has come to fruition yet.
The relationship between Turkey and Kazakhstan has also endured a series of ups and downs. Turkey was the first state to formally recognize Kazakhstan's independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
For years, Turkish-Kazakhstani diplomatic relations have remained cordial, although many would argue that Turkey keeps Kazakhstan at arm's length. Given Turkey's geographical location as a gateway to Western Europe there's no shortage of reasons for Kazakhstan to try and foster strong diplomatic ties. Although that desire may not always be reciprocated.
Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continually delayed a planned trip to Kazakhstan. "It could be said that Kazakhstan places more importance on Turkey than the other way around," observed one top political columnist in Turkey.
The fact that most of Turkey lies in Asia, and the fact Kazakhstan itself is a central Asian country that only joined UEFA in 2002 should be a reminder on Wednesday that it will not be easy to separate club from country.
Kazakhstan, now ranked only 145th by FIFA, has six losses in six games by a combined score of 19-3 against Turkey, including two losses in the current European Championship qualifiers.
The pressure to win is felt from the boardrooms of the club's stadium to the pitch when a state-created club plays against the top team from a nearby nation that has humiliated the state in international soccer.
Regardless, Astana's rise has been remarkable. After signing the memo of cooperation with Galatasaray, things began to fall into place for them on the pitch in just their sixth season of existence.
In November 2014, Astana claimed their first Kazakhstan Premier League title.
They began to get noticed by the soccer world soon after defeating Apoel FC of Cyprus 2-1 on aggregate in the playoff round to became the first Kazakhstani team to ever qualify for the Champions League group stage.
After that victory, President Nazarbayev congratulated Astana, but also stated that "Astana will now have soccer battles with the world brands." Nazarbayev may have been a bit disappointed when the team's group stage draw didn't include any of the soccer's world's most popular brands like Barcelona and Manchester United.
But as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams, FC Astana can't complain. Their debut in the Champions League is as much about exposure for Kazakhstan as it is about grabbing a few points.
"Presenting our nation to the world was one of the objectives in this club's creation," FC Astana's General Manager Kaisar Bekenov has said.
Their home, the lavish Astana Arena, was opened in 2009 with a ceremonial first match between the Kazakh Under-21 squad and Astana (then known as Lokomotiv Astana) with, surprise, surprise, former Galatasaray giants Hasan Şaş and Hakan Şükür added for one game only.
Benfica and Atletico Madrid are not just the two Group C teams most likely to advance: they operate on another stratosphere when compared to FC Astana. They benefit from being part of renowned domestic leagues and the players they attract receive maximum exposure.
FC Astana cannot reasonably aspire to be mentioned in the same breath as these two clubs. But FC Astana sees Galatasaray as a team to model themselves after.
Galatasaray consistently competes in the Champions League, making it to the quarterfinals in 2012-13. It was during that season that Galatasaray welcomed Dutch international Wesley Sneijder as arguably one of the biggest international transfers ever for the club. This summer they brought in German Lukas Podolski who has three goals in six league matches so far.
Sure, both players are over 30 and not the type of marquee signings you'd expect from larger European powers. And yet these are exactly the types of players FC Astana needs to be recruiting: you'd be foolish to expect young international players approaching their prime to settle in Astana, a city going through rapid development. Players on the back end of their careers, however, could certainly be tempted by the club's deep pockets and the opportunity to ride out their careers playing in a less demanding domestic league with the potential added bonus of playing a Champions League match or two.
But just making it to the Champions League is a victory for FC Astana and Kazakhstan. Defeating Galatasaray would be an even bigger one.
"We know that it is a really important game for Astana and the whole of Kazakhstan as well," said FC Astana coach Stanimir Stoilov. He added, "We have to think about discipline on the field and giving our best. If we don't, there could be mistakes, but it will be good experience for us regardless."