The team is funded by income from oil and natural gas interests. Its players have been seduced by high salaries to join the squad. Part of the team’s reason for being is to attract visitors to its country. In fact, the country’s president founded the club’s umbrella organization.
No, we’re not talking about Manchester City and its sheik, or Chelsea and Roman Abramovich’s oil money, or even Real Madrid paying ridiculous amounts to stockpile players. This isn’t about Qatar attempting to convince the world that it’s a legitimate country that plays legitimate soccer in legitimate competitions.
This is FC Astana, the team from Kazakhstan’s capital that has managed to swoop into the Champions League group stage. And because it’s now facing the big boys — or will be, should Astana make it past the likes of Benfica, a team that routinely sells its biggest players, Atlético Madrid, famed for how little it spends compared to that other Madrid side, and Galatasaray’s overpaid, past-their-prime squad — many soccer fans have decided to cheer on these newbies from Central Asia.
It’s unsurprising that European soccer fans would welcome a new face. Only Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, or Chelsea fans seriously believe that their respective teams can lift the Champions League trophy. Despite having won the thing inside the last decade, the likes of Inter, Liverpool, and Milan have seen their fortunes slip so far it’s tough to see them back among the big five. The days when it was possible for teams like Nottingham Forest, Ajax, or even 2004 champions Porto to claim the title feel long, long gone. And despite winning silverware at home, Juventus, Atléti, and Dortmund all were seen as massive underdogs when playing in recent finals.
For many, sports are so magical because of the thrill of the unexpected, and little is as unexpected as a serious underdog slaying Goliath. This is what prompted the recent outpouring of love for Shakhtar, Ludogorets, and Galatasaray. It also helps when David can be seen as an “other” by the Western world: a club existing on the fringe of Europe, needing a boost from soccer’s true leaders to get noticed and get money.
So it follows that many would be magnetically attracted to FC Astana. The trouble is, the team isn’t a hastily assembled side financed by money that can be scavenged from couch cushions. This is not a team desperate for the millions brought in by qualifying for the Champions League group stage. This is a team that most fans would love to hate, if only they saw past the new name on their computer screens.
Let’s start from the beginning — after all, it wasn’t too long ago. In 2008, two clubs in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, merged to form Lokomotiv. Lokomotiv relocated to new capital Astana and began playing games in March 2009. By 2011, all vestiges of the old clubs were dropped, leaving FC Astana in their place. It only took one year for the new club to raise the Kazakhstan Cup. When the necessary three years required by UEFA were up, Astana entered the Europa League. And now, just six years after its establishment, FC Astana is now the first Kazakh team in the Champions League.
But how did they do it? Hard work and dedication? Possibly, but that hard work and dedication was aided by many of the same factors that helped clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City ascend to the top of European soccer. Chelsea, for instance, is 110 years old and has spent the majority of those years in the top flight. But it didn’t have many trophies until Russian owner Roman Abramovich decided to start throwing his petroleum-soaked funny money around to help fill the cabinet. For some soccer fans, the Chelsea owner’s money is a stain on the club’s success.
Manchester City, too, receives a fair share of derision, mostly for having deigned to allow itself to be bought by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. The Sheikh is the deputy prime minister of United Arab Emirates and part of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, meaning City not only benefits from billions in oil money (Forbes values the club at $1.38 billion), but it’s also tied to a country accused of numerous human rights violations.
But City’s ties to a foreign government are nothing compared to Astana’s connections to its own. The club is owned by the “National Welfare Fund,” Samruk-Kazyna, said to be valued at $75 billion. The money gained from sources such as the state’s oil and gas fund makes Astana one of the richest clubs playing in the Champions League, one that doesn’t much need the $13 million received for getting to the group stage.
The club has the backing of those on high as well, as it’s part of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Astana Presidential Sports Club. Not only is the club owned by the state and closely connected to its leader, its reason for existence is to promote its home city, of which few have heard, and its country. According to the team’s General Manager Kaisar Bekenov:
Presenting our nation to the world was one of the objectives in this club’s creation. The president already understood the power and influence sport has that other things cannot provide. He put forward the objective of building a strong, European-level football club in Astana, and I think, step-by-step we are moving towards that.
Keep in mind Bekenov is talking about presenting a nation in which the president won a fifth term with 97.7% of the vote in April, logging yet another election victory for Nazabayev that international election monitors claim was not free and fair. Kazakhstan is a country with a horrible reputation for freedom of the press, where labor rights are routinely violated, and the LGBT community lives in fear. The country’s issues are similar to ones fans routinely bring up when discussing the World Cups set to be hosted in Russia and Qatar. Kazakhstan may not be set to hold a large football competition soon—even though it’s considering a bid for the 2026 World Cup—but it’s compensating for that by using its most successful team to try to draw visitors and attention to the country.
Perhaps this all matters nought. Arguably, the vast majority of soccer teams, particularly those at the elite levels, are tainted by shady connections or dodgy dealings. Some may argue that that’s reason enough to leave them all alone, which is reasonable viewpoint if you come from the camp that wants to separate sport from politics, and views sport as purely escapism.
But you may want to pause and reflect if you find yourself rooting for underdog FC Astana while hating on top-tier teams for their suspect associations in the same breath, because, all things equal, shady connections and dodgy dealings are just as problematic regardless of the perpetrator, right?