In the bright summer evening sun of Almaty, Kazakhstan the two sides FK Kairat Almaty and Opdabas of Schumkent were ready to kick off. Kairat are currently looking over their shoulder towards relegation once again whilst Opdabas are looking for a top 6 place. This is all happening amongst the backdrop of a changing Kazakhstan, but is it a country looking over its shoulder or is it looking to make it into the top tier?
Kazakhstan is a country that is not ashamed of its past but it is a nation that is most definitely looking forward to its oil enhanced future. The last country to emerge from the USSR is finally starting to make use of its vast resources and is slowly but surely increasing living standards for average Kazakhs. This mixes with a strong affinity for its Soviet past where Kazakhstan was part of a world power and enjoyed the patronage that came with it. A modern positive perception of course is still something that any country in that blurry bit of the map between Turkey and China strives for and football in the area is no different.
With the influx of Champions League money and patronage to England’s particularly static top four a question has been raised in recent years. Why bother striving for success when, for example a side like Wigan, can only aim to at most 7th and sneak into the Europa League, a competition that it is not even worth qualifying for?
Well this question is still pertinent in England but a quick glance over to the country still riding the Borat wave shows you that whilst Borat might not welcome reunion with those ‘Uzbek bastards’ there are 2,000 FK Kairat fans who would most definitely welcome a return to the USSR and its unified league.
This is because a side like FK Kairat strive to become a Wigan Athletic. Taking a look at FK Kairat’s history shows their peak was indeed a 7th place in the Soviet top league – not counting of course their 1971 European railway workers cup win. Bear in mind this was a league with sides like Dynamo Kyiv, Spartak Moscow, and CSKA Moscow, so 7th was a decent achievement. They also proudly proclaim 26 years in the Soviet top league as an achievement for the ages, something which makes Wigan’s 7 seasons of Premiership football pale into insignificance. This might not sound like much, but it made Kairat Central Asia’s most successful team in the USSR.
So whilst it might not seem like much finishing a mere 7th in what was one of the world’s top leagues back then, this really was an important achievement for a club currently sitting 14th in the Kazakh top flight. After losing access to what was essentially a super league during the USSR times, Kairat have struggled to succeed after independence. For a club that was used to hanging its hat on the ‘best club in Kazakhstan’ hat stand, two league titles in 20 years is not good enough.
This was exacerbated by the pull out of long time backers the Kazakh rail group in 2004 and has led to Kairat plummeting to a side that is now threatened with relegation. Switching back to the lovely summer night this was shown in an abysmal performance from the Kairat players where terrible individual errors cost them as they went down 3-0 to Opdabas and the 2,000 fans present saw their boo’s echo off the 23,000 empty seats. Kairat are following a path that many former great Soviet clubs are now taking, one where without the stable monopoly that was the Soviet Top League they are struggling to find themselves in the new Western European-centric order of football. Will they ever re-claim their former glories of Wigan Atheltic status? Time will indeed tell but at least no one can take away their 1971 European railway workers cup.