Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital has been put on Europe's football map as FC Astana overcame Finland's HJK to book a place in the UEFA Champions League play-off round, leaving it two games away from a place in the group stage of Europe's elite club tournament.
The dramatic 4-3 victory over HJK — Astana scored in the third minute of injury time — guarantees the club at least a spot in the group stages of the UEFA Europa League, making the club only the second team from Kazakhstan, after Shakhter Karagandy, to reach this stage.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to play its soccer in Europe. It joined UEFA — the Union of European Football Associations — in 2002 after competing for 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan play their international football.
FC Astana was formed in 2008 from the ashes of two defunct clubs from Kazakhstan's commercial hub, Almaty. It was originally known as Lokomotiv Astana and was bankrolled by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the national railroad company.
In 2011, it changed its name and was brought under the wing of Samruk-Kazyna, the national sovereign-wealth fund. The injection of cash has seen the club recently invest in young talent such as Ghanaian forward Patrick Twumasi, who scored Astana's opener against HJK, and Serbian midfielder Nemanja Maksimović.
The club's success is a boost for Kazakhstan's image after the blow of losing the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing last week. Sport plays a key role in Kazakhstan's project to promote itself on the international stage.
There was disappointment in Almaty as it lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a mere four votes.
A 500-strong crowd gathered in the mid-afternoon on July 31 in downtown Almaty's Abai Square greeted the news of their city’s defeat with stony silence. Almaty was the clear underdog, and despite giving a good account of itself, the city failed to tip the balance its way as International Olympic Committee delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur gave the nod to Beijing by a narrow margin of 44 votes to 40.
The decision is a blow to long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev's image-making project for Kazakhstan, which had hoped for the spectacle of the Winter Olympics as the crowning glory of the country's rise from impoverished post-Soviet backwater to a dynamic, emerging player on the world stage.
Both Almaty and Kazakhstan have gained a massive publicity boost in the world's media as the bid decision day loomed. Almaty received plaudits from IOC delegates for the quality of its bid. That was a remarkable turnaround as it was tagged a rank outsider only a year ago. At that time, there was another rival contender — Norway's capital Oslo — and Almaty received the lowest scores from the IOC working group in most of the evaluation categories.
For the authorities the Winter Olympics bid was all about putting Kazakhstan on the map. “Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,” the vice-chairman of Almaty's bid, Andrey Kruykov, told the Associated Press. “It's our main task to let everybody know [about Almaty].”
The David and Goliath struggle between Almaty and Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games comes to its conclusion on July 31 as the delegates of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to decide who will win the right to host the Games.
Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
Few Kazakhstanis were surprised when a top organizer of the 2011 Asian Winter Games, the biggest sporting spectacle the country has ever held, was jailed last October. Aidar Musin was found guilty of using $3 million in state funds earmarked for the event to buy himself luxury cars and prime real estate.
Astana's ambitious plan to add a year to its school curriculum has been postponed indefinitely as lower oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia batter Kazakhstan’s economy.
“Taking into account the situation, the question of the transition to a 12-year program must be postponed,” Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov told journalists after a Senate session on January 22, TengriNews reports.
Sarinzhipov went on to explain how financial considerations were impacting the situation. “There are many factors, including financial possibilities. The government is now working on the head of state's instruction to prepare different scenarios for the economy. Proceeding from this situation, we have decided to put it [the program] on hold.”
The move to add a year to Kazakhstan's 11-grade system, a legacy from Soviet times, is seen as key to modernizing the education sector. The extra year would bring the country's system in line with international standards and enable external recognition of Kazakhstani secondary education qualifications.
Now as Astana slashes its growth expectations and lowers budget revenue forecasts, the 12-year program has become an early casualty of the government's belt tightening.
This is not the first time that these reforms have been shelved. In 2011 the Education Ministry put back plans to add a year to the curriculum until 2015, citing a deficit of space and trained teachers.
The ministry piloted the 12-year model in 104 schools between 2011 and 2014 using experimental textbooks and teaching materials. The 12-year program was supposed to be fully implemented by 2020.
Kazakhstan’s flagship international cycling team will have to sweat it out until February to see if it can compete that year in major international road races, including the Tour de France. A series of doping scandals has tainted the team. But where international sports officials see serious infractions, Kazakhstanis tend to see an international plot to steal their glory.