Unveiling mystery of the east

Jonathan Wilson examines what lies in store for Trap and his team in Astana tomorrow night

The main issue with Kazakhstan, of course, is the distance. Astana is five time zones away — as far to the east, in other words, as New York is to the west — and, when such a vast journey is necessary, it’s hard not to wonder whether Kazakhstan is really part of Europe at all. Even Kazakhstan seems unsure whether it’s in Asia or Europe and the truth is, it’s a bit of each. Kazakhstan straddles the Urals and, while the bulk of the country’s landmass may be to the east of them, the Russian influence remains strong.

In 2002, the Kazakh Football Federation (KSF) took the fateful decision to leave the Asian confederation (AFC) to join Uefa. “Our experts,” a KSF statement said, “are deeply convinced that our football today needs to be part of Uefa, which in our opinion has the most developed and progressive system of soccer in the world.”

The practical, footballing reasons for looking west seemed to have merit. The president of the KSF, Rakhat Aliyev, irritated by underwhelming performances in qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cup qualifying through the AFC, reasoned that playing in Uefa would toughen his side up, expose them to best practice, lessen travelling times (because however long it might take to get to Iceland or Portugal, it takes even longer to get to Malaysia or Laos) and lead to more glamorous fixtures to draw crowds — Spain, Germany or Italy rather than North Korea, Kuwait or Bhutan.

But there were also political reasons. The president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has held power since the break-up of the Soviet Union and, as he seeks to benefit from the country’s vast oil reserves (3.2% of the world’s oil is under Kazakhstan), he has tried to maintain good relations with the USA, Russia and China. As analyst Rob Langham put it in Issue Four of The Blizzard, “Kazakhstan clearly sees itself as part of ‘the West’ — being part of Uefa has been a vital part of that process.”

Results since the switch, though, have been unimpressive. In two World Cup qualifying campaigns so far, Kazakhstan have won only two games. Their only point in qualifying for 2006 came from a goalless draw, away to Georgia. They did achieve two wins in the qualifying series for 2010, but both were against Andorra as they lost every other game, being hammered 4-0 and 5-1 by both England and Belarus.

They did beat a disjointed, sulking Serbia and Armenia in qualifiers for Euro 2008 and overcame Azerbaijan in the preliminaries for the last Euros, but there has been little in their results to suggest the idea to shift confederation was a success. The hoped-for improvement has yet to materialise, something that is all the more striking when Kazakhstan are compared to neighbours Uzbekistan. A decade or so ago, they were of a near enough equal standard. Kazakhstan went to Uefa while Uzbekistan, naturally more insular, stayed in the AFC.

They’d been embarrassed at the Asian Cup in 2000, losing 8-1 to Japan, but since then had improved to reach the competition semi-final last year. They’ve reached the final round of Asian qualifying this time round and, although a home defeat to Iran hit their chances, victory over South Korea in Tashkent on Tuesday would put them back in the hunt.

The limit of Kazakhstan’s ambition, realistically, is finishing about the Faroe Islands and trying to improve their coefficient to get a higher seeding for the qualifiers for Euro 2016. In that context, it’s hard to see the decision to move from the AFC to Uefa as anything other than a desperate mistake.

The Czech coach Miroslav Beranek has recently favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation, although the wide midfielders often drop so deep that it becomes more of a 4-4-1-1. The major threat is probably Sergei Ostapenko, an awkward 6’3” forward who moves in a blur of blond demi-mullet and whirring elbows. In 2008 he and the defender Maksim Zhalmagambetov earned moves to Royal Antwerp, but between them they managed just one game in the Belgian league before being shipped back to Kazakhstan. Now 26, Ostapenko may start on the right rather than through the middle, in which case Kazakhstan’s main exit ball as they look to relieve pressure is sure to be the long diagonal out to that wing. That would mean Sergei Gridin, another physical monster, starting at centre-forward. He is around an inch and a half taller than Ostapenko and, although just a year younger, far less experienced. The suggestion is that while he is less technically gifted than Ostapenko, he presents a greater goal treat, something underlined when he scored two on his debut in the famous win over Armenia.

Only two of the squad selected by Beranek play outside Kazakhstan. There’s the right-back, Konstantin Engel, who plays in the second division of the Bundesliga for Energie Cottbus and left-back-cum-left-side midfielder Heinrich Schmidtgal, who played a key role in Greuther Furth’s promotion to the Bundesliga last season.

If Kazakhstan are to upset Ireland, the other significant presence is likely to be Kairat Nurdauletov, who often plays at the back of midfield for his club but could be used as a ball-playing central defender. Perhaps if he has the game of his life, Kazakhstan could frustrate Ireland, but realistically this is not a game Ireland should fear. Recent history suggests Kazakhstan is a harder place to get to than get a result from.

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