In beating APOEL Nicosia 2-1 on aggregate, FC Astana have become the first team from the former Soviet Union state of Kazakhstan to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.
The Kazakhstanis beat Maribor of Solvenia, HJK Helsinki of Finland and Cypriots APOEL on their way to the group stages for their maiden season with Europe’s elite after being drawn against Atlético Madrid, Galatasaray and Benfica in an almost impossible Group C.
The qualification is a remarkable feat considering the club was formed just six years ago as Lokomotiv Astana to represent Kazakhstan’s new capital city after it was moved from Almaty in 1997.
Until 2011 the team was funded by the state with the main sponsor being the national rail service Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ) hence the name Lokomotiv. Under the Lokomotiv name, the team lifted the Kazakhstani Cup in 2010 after a 1-0 over FC Shakhter Karagandy.
The team was then re-branded as FC Astana in an attempt to better represent the team and new capital both domestically and internationally.
Since severing their ties with the national rail service, the team has been sponsored by the state owned sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna.
Samruk-Kazyna is worth an estimated $78 billion USD and like the Russian example of Gazprom with Zenit St. Petersburg, Red Star Belgrade, FC Schalke, etc. are using sport as a public relations tool.
Apart from sponsoring FC Astana, the company has interests in Ice Hockey, Basketball, Boxing, Figure Skating and also sponsors cycling Team Astana which was founded in 2012 with the team’s Vincenzo Nibali winning the Tour de France in 2014.
There is also talk in the Turkish media that the company is close to agreeing a $50 million USD sponsorship deal with Group C rivals Galatasaray.
With such lucrative backing, the club has gone on to win another cup in 2012 and their first championship in 2014 after pipping champions FC Aktobe to the title by five points.
This season the club are in second place in the league after navigating the opening round in third position and must be at their very best if they are going to take a scalp in this season’s Champions League.
The club are led by Stanimir Stoilov who has had a successful coaching career in his homeland of Bulgaria in leading Levski Sofia to the League and Cup on two separate occasions as well as lifting the cup for a third time with Litex Lovech.
Since his arrival, FC Astana have finished in second and first place in the league and have now done the unthinkable in qualifying for the Champions League group stage.
It took a late equalizer from €2 million signing Nemanja Maksimovic to get the goal that made history for the club and Kazakhstani football in general.
The team will be relying on key players Dmitri Shomko, Foxi Kéthévoama, Tanat Nusserbayev and Nemanja Maksimovic to nullify the threat from players such as Wesley Sneijder, Nicolás Gaitán and Antoine Griezmann during what looks like an insurmountable group for the Central Asian minnows.
Even if the lowest rank team in the competition ultimately finish the group in last place, they will receive a huge financial windfall with a guaranteed €12 million for taking part, but more importantly will have achieved the vision of the club directors – a higher profile for the club and the capital city of Kazakhstan – Astana.