ASTANA – The European football season started for three Kazakh contenders with the first qualification round of the Europa League on July 2 and 9. Two of them, FC Aktobe and FC Ordabasy Shymkent failed to deliver in the two-leg ties against Estonian and Israeli clubs respectively. Kairat Almaty, however, accomplished a remarkable victory against Crvena Zvezda, also known as Red Star Belgrade, winners of the 1991 European Champions Cup.
The first among the three Kazakh clubs, FC Aktobe is a joint record holder, along with FC Irtysh Pavlodar, in term of national championship titles won – five. The club is considered in Kazakhstan to be the one with the most experience in European tournaments and is believed to have a solid budget and strong line-up. Therefore, it was a big surprise when the west Kazakhstan club lost the first match on home soil against a lesser-known and less funded Estonian club MJ Nõmme Kalju 0-1. Despite clear domination on the field and creating many more scoring chances than the opponents, Aktobe failed to hit its target and allowed a goal in an attack by the guests. The situation repeated in the second leg, and, thanks to a goalless draw in Tallinn, it was the Estonian team who progressed to the second round.
FC Ordabasy Shymkent had a more experienced opposition in Beitar Jerusalem, a six-time champion of the Israeli football league. The first game in Kazakhstan ended with a dull 0-0. At the Teddy stadium, in the holy city of three religions, Beitar proved to be the stronger side and won 2-1, although the Ordabasy had their chances to snatch away the victory on the away goals rule.
Last year’s runners up in the domestic league, FC Kairat Almaty had the toughest draw out of three Kazakh contenders, facing the Serbian giants Crvena Zvezda. The Belgrade club has an impressive history of victories in Europe, including the European Champions Cup in 1991. It is also known for an impressive army of fans known well beyond Serbia’s borders for their passionate, and sometimes aggressive, support of their club. A few of its current squad’s youngest players last month became world champions after beating their Brazilian peers in the FIFA U20 World Cup final in New Zealand. Therefore, the Serbs were clear favourites to win the tie. However, Kairat managed a surprise 2-0 away victory. The host players were quick to explain the loss with bad luck and “arbitrary rulings” from the match’s Polish referee as he showed one of the Red Star’s defenders a red card in the early minutes of the games.
The return leg on Almaty’s Central Stadium became an impressive display of loyalty from the Kairat’s fans who turned out en masse in the club’s traditional yellow jerseys and actively supported the home players throughout the match. The game itself proved to be a high quality rivalry, in which Kairat was no worse but with more quality in finishing attacks, which led to two more goals scored. The Red Star players managed only to earn a penalty kick at the end of the match, which fixed the 2-1 victory for the home side.
Following this remarkable accomplishment, Kairat Almaty progressed to the second round of the Europa League qualifications. There it will face a potentially dangerous opposition from the Armenian club Alashkert, surprise winners in the first round against Scottish Premier League side Saint Johnstone FC. The first match will be played in Almaty on July 16 and the second a week later in Yerevan.
Kairat hopes to field against the Armenians its newest signing,Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. A veteran star defender of the Ukrainian national team, he is a former player of Dynamo Kyiv and Zenit Saint Petersburg, as well as Bayern Munich with which he won the UEFA Champions League in 2013. Despite being 36 years old, the pundits say he is still capable of adding more strength to his new club’s defence lines.
The current holders of the Kazakh Premier League title, FC Astana, start their campaign in the Champions League qualification round with an away match against Slovenia’s FC Maribor on July 14, with the return leg scheduled at Astana Arena on July 22. The local fans hope Astana will be able to emulate Kairat’s model of succeeding against a former Yugoslav side.