By Manuel Veth –
It is often said that football mirrors society, and in the case of Kazakhstan’s current champion FC Astana, the adage definitely applies. Much like the city of Astana itself, the club FC Astana lacks history and traditions; unlike Kairat Almaty, or Shakhter Karagandy—both clubs with long histories and rich traditions—FC Astana has a synthetic feel to it.
The club, which was founded only six years ago in 2008 as Lokomotiv Astana, was created to represent Kazakhstan’s new capital in the Kazakh Premier League. From the very beginning, the club was funded by the state, and as the name Lokomotiv suggests, the team was sponsored by the national rail service Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ).
In 2011, however, the club changed its name to FC Astana, and then in 2014 a new logo was introduced. Both changes were initiated, because officials wanted the club to better represent both the capital and also the state of Kazakhstan in domestic, and international competitions. As the General Director of the club Kaisar Bekenov, pointed out at a press conference last year: “Together, we conducted market research [in order to find a new name], and we are envisioning grandiose plans. In general, the task of FC Astana is to promote the image of Astana, and the country on the international scene.”
From Lokomotiv Astana to FC Astana
As part of the restructuring of FC Astana, the club also officially severed its ties with the KTZ in 2014, and instead is now sponsored by the state owned holding company, the National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna, which owns, either in whole or in part, many important companies in the country, including the national rail and postal service, the state oil and gas company KazMunayGas, the state uranium company Kazatomprom, Air Astana, and numerous financial groups estimated to be worth $78 billion. Samruk-Kazyna in many ways operates like other gigantic post-Soviet holding companies, and illustrates the continued involvement of state structures in post-Soviet capitalism.
FC Astana therefore is not only a public relations arm of Samruk-Kazyna, but indeed as Kaisar Bekenov pointed out, but is also an important tool with which to promote the image of Kazakhstan in international competitions. Also, in 2013 the club became part of the Astana Presidential Sports Club, a multi-sport federation, which acts as the parent organization of various sport clubs in the capital including: the ice hockey team Barys Astana, the Basketball Club Astana, the boxing club Astana Arlans, and the bicycle team Astana, which regularly competes in the Tour de France and featured notorious cyclist Lance Armstrong as a team member in 2009.
The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is the honorary president of the club. Nazarbayev has pointed out that the multi-sport club was not named after the capital of Kazakhstan by accident. Speaking to the Astana Times Nazarbayev pointed out that “Astana is a light tower of Kazakhstan’s development.” He added “Our country has achieved significant results not only in the economy but in the sports as well. Seven gold medals and the 12th team place at the Olympic Games in London testify to that. Kazakhstan has to become a world class sports power. We have got a constellation of brilliant athletes who have glorified our country with their victories. But we do not intend to stop; we need to enter a highly professional level of sports management. Kazakhstan should be known as the nation of winners. After the Universiade in Almaty [in 2017], we want to bid for the Winter Olympics in the southern capital [in 2022]. All conditions have been created for this already, and there is hope for support from the international sports community.”
Football as a part of Nation Building
FC Astana, as part of the country’s drive towards becoming a legitimate sports nation, was given sufficient state resources to guarantee the club’s success. As part of this agenda the club has access to the country’s most modern stadium, the Astana Arena. Opened in 2009, the stadium cost $185 million to construct, and was described by UEFA president Michel Platini as the “the most beautiful stadium in Europe.” The stadium has since become an important symbol of Astana, and as pointed out by Fettah Tamince the co-founder of Sembol Construction, which was in charge of building the structure, the stadium “stands at the forefront of global stadium architecture and technology, and will certainly contribute towards the thriving cultural and social scene within the rapidly developing Astana. It is a prestigious project not only for Kazakhstan, but also for our group; we are very excited about our future and ongoing investments within the country.”
In addition, , the club has what is considered the highest player budget in the 2015 Kazakhstan Premier League. FC Astana’s squad, which according to transfermarkt.de is worth €14.5 million is considered the most valuable in the league, and includes several intriguing foreign players such as the 20-year-old Serbian defensive midfielder Nemanja Maksimović, who was purchased from the Slovenian club NK Domzale for €2 million, and the 21-year old Ghanaian striker Patrick Twumasi, who currently leads the club in scoring with six goals. The most interesting Kazakh prospect is Georgi Zhukov, who was born in Kazakhstan, but has spent much of his life in Belgium, and has also represented Belgium on the U-19 level. Zhukov is currently on a loan deal from the Belgian club Standard Liege.
Despite the futuristic stadium, and the limitless resources available to the club, FC Astana has, however, failed to win the hearts and minds of football fans in Astana. Many games involving FC Astana in the Kazakh Premier League are played in front of empty ranks in the Astana Arena. In 2012, for example FC Astana’s average attendance was 5081, and although attendance is growing, the Astana Arena’s 30,000-seat capacity means that games in Kazakhstan’s Premier League often exude a feeling of irrelevance. At the same time, however, 23,650 fans attended Astana’s second round qualification victory against the Slovenian team NK Maribor.
This highlights the importance of international success to the football project in Kazakhstan’s new capital. FC Astana will not only have to continue to be successful within the country , but should also, at the very least, reach the group stage of the Europa League in order to build a football brand that is recognizable not only in Kazakhstan, but also abroad. Kazakh state organizations will continue to ensure that FC Astana receives all the funds necessary in order to prosper, as FC Astana in particular, and sport in general, have been identified by state authorities as the paramount marketing tool of the young nation state.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.
Pictures via David McArdle.