Oil and gas has brought wealth to Kazakhstan but domestic football has seen little of this money, says Mark Gilbey
Kazakhstan’s president is an ambitious chap. Twelve years ago, deciding that he was bored with life in the capital, Almaty, Nursultan Nazarbayev opted to up sticks and build a new city 600 miles away in the desert. The move to Astana cost £10 billion, but money is no object for the oil and gas-rich Kazakhstani government. It’s just a shame that they aren’t football fans.
The Kazakh Premier League has never been high on Nazarbayev’s list of priorities, although 2009 looked like being an important year for football in the country. Last season’s champions FK Aktobe finished runners up in January’s CIS Cup, the tournament for the title holders of each of the former Soviet states’ top divisions, and FK Astana were due to begin the new campaign in an ultra-modern stadium in the capital. However, Nazarbayev is more concerned with getting Almaty ready for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and investing heavily in the government’s Astana cycling team, which includes Lance Armstrong. Meanwhile, when the new Premier League season began in March three teams had withdrawn, citing financial problems.
On January 14 the chairman of FK Astana, Aytalap Kurgambayev, announced that “we will not be allowed to take part in the league until we have entirely paid off our debts”, which total around £1.5 million. The club are one of Kazakhstan’s oldest and most successful, winning the Premier League and cup three times each. To help get back into the black they have released or loaned out their entire first team squad, while keeping open their academy in the hope that they will be able to return next year. Life in Kazakhstan is moving at a breakneck speed thanks to the revenue from its natural resources, and living in Almaty is more expensive than Los Angeles, but investors are thin on the ground for Premier League teams. FK Astana may be an attractive prospect to potential suitors though – prior to going bankrupt, Kurgambayev had signed the club up to play home games at the new multipurpose stadium being built by the government.
The 30,000-seat Astana Stadium is the next grandiose project in the new capital. But the Turkish company in charge of constructing the stadium have themselves experienced financial difficulties. The venue was due to open in May 2008 but Kazakhstan’s World Cup qualifier against England in June is now pencilled in for the inauguration.
Six days after FK Astana’s demise, there was a second withdrawal when FK Almaty from the old capital city announced that they had merged with one of their local rivals. Megasport Depot aren’t exactly steeped in history – they were only formed four years ago and sound more like a budget sports retailer than a football team. Now they have joined forces with FK Almaty as FK Lokomotiv in a nod to their sponsors, the state-owned railway company Temir Zholy.
That’s Lokomotiv Astana, not Lokomotiv Almaty, however. At their backers’ behest, Temir Zholy have whisked their baby 600 miles away to the new capital. Lokomotiv have also agreed to play their home games at the national stadium, whenever that’s completed. The delay left them scrambling for a new home, so while FK Astana reorganise, FK Lokomotiv have moved into their old Kazhimukan Munaitpasov Stadium.
In a league hamstrung by a lack of investment Temir Zholy have backed the club heavily in the transfer market – bringing more than ten new players, including former Russian internationals Andrey Tikhonov and Yegor Titov. They’ve got off to a good start, too, winning their opening three games, scoring nine goals in the process. The Railwaymen haven’t been as successful in attracting supporters, however – fewer than 3,000 turned out to see Lokomotiv’s first ever home game on March 21.
Almaty has been left without a Premier League team for the first time since independence in 1991 as the former capital’s other top-flight side, FK Kairat, also went bust. Perennial European qualifiers since the country joined UEFA in 2002, Kairat were the most successful Central Asian club in the old Soviet league. The Kazakhstan Football Federation decamped from Asia to Europe in the hope of improving the standard of their national side. But they are unlikely to be more than also-rans for as long as their domestic league is in such a mess.
From WSC 267 May 2009