Founded only six years ago, FC Astana is the first football club from Kazakhstan to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League (UCL). There are four qualifying rounds that teams need to proceed in order to participate in the UCL. Kazakhstan Premier League’s ranking coefficient allows champions of Kazakhstan to start from the second round. This is when FC Astana faced last year’s UCL participant, FC Maribor; it should be noted that Maribor tied Chelsea the same year. Nevertheless, despite being the underdogs, Astana successfully proceeded to the next round where they played Europa League’s constant participant, HJK Helsinki. The first away leg ended in a goalless draw, so in order to reach the fourth round the only thing Astana could accept in the second home leg was to win. It was the best game I have ever been to, and I genuinely think it deserves its own mention, so I will write about it in the next post. In short, Astana beat HJK 4-3 in a dramatic clash and reached the final qualifying round, where they came across a 2011/12 UCL quarter-finalist, APOEL. A sensational home win in the first leg and an astonishing away draw paved their way into the group stage.
With no prior UCL experience, Astana was initially considered a weak opponent by all other teams, but a Kazakh proverb says “you have to catch your bear before you sell its skin”. They played in a group with Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray. Playing away was tough for Astana as they often clung to their own goal, but at home an Astana caterpillar turned into a butterfly and played as equals to their strong and experienced opponents. At home, Atletico Madrid has failed to score, Benfica barely scored two goals in the end of the game to tie the Kazakh side, and Galatasaray could not hold the lead allowing Astana to comeback. The last group-stage game was played in Turkey, and Astana surprisingly competed for the right to play in the play-offs of the Europa League. Unfortunately, they could only tie and thus got knocked out of the European cups. Astana lost twice and tied four times earning the team four points, which is an amazing result for newcomers of the venerable Champions League.
One fact that makes me especially proud as a fan is that Astana has not lost a single home game both in qualifying rounds and the group stage. The Astana Arena can fit 30,000 people and meets all international standards. Football fandom is a relatively new movement in Kazakhstan, but it has already reached certain heights. Galatasaray’s famous fan performance says “Welcome to Hell”, but we all know where the actual hell is.