ASTANA – Their equipment is donated. Their practice space is loaned. Not one of the men on the field, switching in and out of pads and helmets on the sidelines because there still aren’t enough to go around, dreams of a big NFL contract. It would be a stretch to even dream of local glory – hardly anyone around here even knows the rules of the game. But still they get together three times a week, one of the four club American football teams in Central Asia, to practice this game that a number of them barely know.
The Astana Wolves American football team practices at the sports centre of Nazarbayev University, where team organiser Asset Ainabekov, 26, studies. Ainabekov, who comes from Ust-Kamenogorsk, is the driving force behind the less than year-old team.
“I studied at the University of Texas for three years,” Ainabekov told The Astana Times, sitting on the bleachers after a Feb. 17 night practice. He watched his friends play football, then started playing pick-up games, and got hooked. When he left the U.S. and moved to Astana, he was hoping to find some new friends who might want to play the American game.
“I brought two balls from the U.S. I just wanted to throw the ball with somebody, at least,” Ainabekov said. “So I gathered my friends and we started to play. Then we put some pictures on our Facebook page and we got some other guys interested. And I met another enthusiast … he was gathering a team, but he had only two or three people.” They decided to work together, reaching out through their friends and through online social networks.
The group they gathered was more enthusiastic than knowledgeable. “I don’t think anyone was familiar with American football at all,” Ainabekov said. “They’d watched films about it and they knew what it was like, but they didn’t know the rules. They were just interested in a contact game, I think.” They set up their first game in March or April of this year, he said.
There are only four active football teams in Central Asia right now, Ainabekov said. Until very recently, there were only two: the Almaty Titans of KIMEP University and Barsy of Bishkek. “Then the KIMEP team helped the IT university in Almaty to make their own team,” Ainabekov said. The Titans also helped the Astana team, giving them some equipment and coaching them for a while.
Since August, the Wolves have had volunteer coach Will Conway to help them. Conway, 37, of Auburn, Alabama, has been in Kazakhstan since 2003 and helped establish the Titans with his brother, who also lives in Almaty.
“I think at the first [Wolves] practice we had four guys. Maybe three,” Conway said after the same Feb. 17 practice. “Then the next practice, seven or eight. The next practice, 10 or 12.” About 50 players have passed through, he guesses, and now there are a solid core of 30 regulars.
The guys who come put a lot of effort into learning and practicing, the coach says. “They’re great. They’re great to work with. … They’re working hard.”
“Everybody’s just enjoying playing the game,” Ainabekov said. “The game is unique – this feeling of team spirit, the tackles. It’s very physical. That’s what attracts men, I think.”
Conway agrees. “It’s different than soccer or basketball, any of the other team sports here. It appeals to something in us as men – we’re made to like contact. That’s just the way we’re made.”
He did encounter some misconceptions about how American football is played at first, however. “You can have an aggression in you and play the game clean and fair and at the end of the game shake the other guy’s hand, look him in the eye and have respect for him,” Conway notes. “Some people, when I first came here, they were like, ‘Do you guys hate each other?’” He laughed. “We’re like, ‘No! We don’t hate each other. We hit each other, but then you pick [the other guy] up and send him back to his huddle.’ So there’s respect there.”
Seeing this respect is something Conway appreciates about the way the game is developing in Central Asia. “If someone gets injured, immediately, everybody on the field, everybody on the sidelines hits a knee, just to show respect for the injured player and wish him the best,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t even see that in the States. But here … in every game I’ve seen in Central Asia, that has been a part of the atmosphere and part of the culture,” he said.
The coach and players say there is hard work, hard hitting and respect at Central Asia’s games and practices. What they lack, so far, is money, equipment and stadiums. The team pays for their own travel. They practice three times a week for free at Nazarbayev University and have borrowed or got second hand the equipment – which they all share during practice, changing in and out of pads, as there aren’t enough to go around. “So far, we haven’t bought anything,” said Ainabekov. “Some of the guys are planning to order or have ordered shoulder pads and helmets.” The Titans all have their own equipment, he said, and he hopes the Wolves soon will, too. Conway says he’s put out feelers to American friends in the region, trying to collect used equipment from high schools and colleges in the U.S., and has had some success so far.
Ainabekov is hopeful about football’s prospects in Kazakhstan. “I think there is great potential,” he said. “We are a post-Soviet country. We’re kind of conservative so far … this is like an exotic game for us.” In Ukraine and Russia, however, he said, leagues are growing and the game has become very popular in the last couple of years. They have leagues; they have a lot of teams with full rosters. I think we’re becoming that. Hopefully.” There is already another nascent team in Karaganda, he said, which he hopes will eventually join their budding league.
Ainabekov is “a great ambassador of the game,” Conway said. “He’s learned the game, he loves the game, but he doesn’t just try to make himself better. He pulls people in constantly. He’s like a coach on the field.” So are some of the other players on the young Wolves team, he said. “As a coach, you love to see that. They’re not just trying to make themselves better. They’re trying to make everyone better.”
For now, the four teams are trying to pull together a season. The Wolves’ last game was a few weeks ago, Ainabekov said. In a month or so, they plan to travel to Almaty and Bishkek to play again. The idea, their coach said, is for each of the four teams to play each other twice, so each team has six games. That should happen before June. “I would call that a successful season if we can make that happen,” Conway said.