There’s a certain odious and backwards character that springs to mind when Kazakhstan is mentioned, and one who I was at pains not to mention here – certainly not in the introduction at least.
You know the chap I mean, I don’t need to write his name.
But Sacha Baron Cohen’s mankini-clad creation couldn’t be a further misrepresentation of life in Kazakhstan and thanks to its vast natural resources the country, and in particular the capital Astana, is modernising at a frightening pace – they even get the Vicar of Dibley on the telly.
And there is no better analogy for the country’s rapid rise than the football club Lokomotiv Astana.
In 1997 and buoyed by the revenue from their vast oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan’s ambitious government transported the capital, Almaty, 600 miles away to Astana using hundreds of trains in a bid to create Central Asia’s pre-eminent city. Now, generously backed by the funds of the state-owned railway company Temir Zholy, Lokomotiv have made a similar, one-way journey to Astana in an attempt to become the country’s best football team.
They were only formed this year and played their first game just last Saturday, but are expected to clinch the Premier League in their inaugural season by their owners.
In a rapidly changing country success is demanded immediately, often at the extent of sound planning, but it’s been a lean few months for Kazakhstan’s Premier League. A harsh winter of uncertainty, speculation and negativity descended upon the competition after FK Aktobe lifted the title in November, leading to a glut of teams experiencing financial problems and withdrawing from the league, including three from the country’s largest city, Almaty.
FK Almaty isn’t particularly imaginative, nor is Megasport Depot, who sound as though they are the football arm of a budget sports retailer from Stevenage. To stave of bankruptcy the two clubs from Kazakhstan’s largest city merged and have been sponsored by Temir Zholy.
They had a crack at naming their new team themselves but were left with something of a predicament because FK Astana had already been taken. After weeks of soul searching and head scratching they plumped for FK Lokomotiv that is also plastered across their shirts.
The naming process is a hangover from the Soviet era when clubs were usually bestowed a title that was a generic name across the USSR like Dinamo or Torpedo, or after respected professions.
Fans of FK Kaisar Kyzylorda, who were once known as FK Meliorator, or the “land reclamation experts” probably spearheaded the campaign to get this trait reversed.
Their nickname is now the wolves, despite the saiga antelope on their jersey that doesn’t quite strike terror into opponents’ hearts like the fearsome canine. “The saiga is a cute animal that runs very fast,” said Kaisar’s press officer in an attempt to explain away the club’s badge.
Fusing two rival sides together isn’t ideal anywhere in the world – I’d be distraught if Peterborough United clubbed together with Northampton Town, but Temir Zholy had a novel idea to escape fans’ criticism: move the club 600 miles away to Astana and start again with a bucket load of cash to create a better team from scratch.
Lokomotiv sums up Kazakhstan perfectly, and better than the aforementioned comedy creation of Mr Cohen.
They are a new club, moving to Astana and expecting to become the best overnight: there’s no five-year-plan for Temir Zholy, they demand instant success.
Lokomotiv got off to good start, too. They won their first game 4-3 away to Kazakhmys Saptaev in front of a less-than-impressive 1,300 crowd – disappointing, even if it was an away match.
I’m not certain who the new fans will be, or if Astana’s “plastics” will come out to support them. The economic crisis had meant that the new, 30,000-seater national stadium they were due to play in remains unfinished in the capital, and they were even considering going back to Almaty with their tails between their legs to play their first season 600 miles away at Megasport Depot’s ground.
FK Almaty or Megasport Depot fans probably wouldn’t have been queuing around the block for season tickets, nor would it have been a way to attract the support of the denizens of Astana.
However the economic crisis has played into Temir Zholy’s hands and the only other top-flight team from Astana – FK Astana, have also gone bankrupt and Lokomotiv have moved into their decrepit Kazhimukan Munaitpasov Stadium that was built over 70 years ago.
It’s not the ideal home for Kazakhstan’s new “super club”.
One thing that is interesting is the Kazakhstani media’s approach to Lokomotiv. English supporters will remember how Peter Winkelman’s forced move of Wimbledon 56 miles up the road to the concrete jungle of Milton Keynes was vilified in the press, and supporters still have a field day in lamenting the MK Dons.
But in Kazakhstan it’s a different, more positive angle the media are taking – there’s been almost no negativity, and Lokomotiv have been billed as an exciting, new project that sums up the attitude of the entire country.
Cynics would perhaps argue it’s because Temir Zholy are a government company and the media is, to a certain extent, controlled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his daughter, but compared to other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has a relatively free press.
Football is a bit different there, though.
Clubs aren’t as deeply ingrained in the community and fans don’t really have that sense of identity like elsewhere in the world. Kazakhstani teams didn’t fair too well in the Soviet football pyramid and the sport is still finding its feet since the fragmentation of the USSR in 1991.
The lion’s share of sides are still relatively new – Megasport Depot were formed as late as 2005 and many of the other top-flight teams are 21st century creations as well.
Maybe Lokomotiv will change all that, success would be a good start.
Any they are expected to deliver it, like every other new-fangled creation in Kazakhstan. Just look at the government-backed Astana Cycling Team that boasts Lance Armstrong amongst its ranks and are indubitably number one in the world thanks to generous backing.
Lokomotiv have snapped up 10 players – picking up the vestiges of the disbanded Premier League teams and a few from the top sides too. They’ve even thrown in a couple of box office signings to boot.
Lokomotiv have lured the former Russian internationals Andrei Tikhonov and Yegor Titov to Kazakhstan. They are a couple of good friends who have both been captains of Spartak Moscow, and who were both quick to dismiss the move being an primarily economic one.
Tikhonov is 38, but his transfer is still a surprise, even in the autumn of his career and he has been bestowed the Lokomotiv captaincy. An even bigger shock is Titov’s, who was a key member of the Russian national team only a couple of years ago, but whose form dipped after refusing to a call-up for a Euro 2008 qualifier against Estonia.
With both in the side, Lokomotiv should be there or thereabouts come November and have even been fortunate enough to pick up FK Almaty’s Europa League spot next season.
Fusing a whole new team and expecting results overnight is a big ask, although something common to Kazakhstan. Megasport Depot finished 25 points behind FK Aktobe and Tobol Kostanay in fifth place last season and FK Almaty a further three places below them.
It’s hard to look past Aktobe for the title, even if they did labour to victory over Kaisar at the weekend. They thumped Lokomotiv 6-0 in the winter break, albeit without their mercurial Russian duo.
In January Aktobe made it to the final of the CIS Cup – not the Scottish one, although they probably would’ve been just as successful had the entered that, but the tournament for the title holders of each of the former Soviet republics.
They even beat Rubin Kazan of Russia 2-0 on the way to the final, before going down 5-4 on penalties to Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol at the final hurdle.
Perennial underachievers – someone needs that tag now Spain have finally won something, FK Tobol will probably finished second or third, like they have for the previous seven seasons.
The omens are good for Lokomotiv, though. Last time Temir Zholy played real life Football Manager with FK Kairat the team clinched their first title in 13 years.
But a word of warning to Lokomotiv’s new fans – whoever they may be, when Temir Zholy pulled out success dried up and earlier this year Kairat were one of the Premier League teams who went bankrupt.
In three years’ time when Temir Zholy’s sponsorship ends, a similar fate could await Lokomotiv if they don’t build a solid platform for success.