Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Flying can evoke painful memories.
Waking up at an ungodly hour to drive to Luton Airport for family holidays in Benidorm. Departure lounges ruled by rampant kids wielding beeping Game Boys. Disingenuously smiling stewardesses issuing plastic meals. Mobs of vacuous northern lads hoovering lager.
Good luck if you're taking the eight-hour flight for England's World Cup qualifier in Almaty – a 7,000-mile round-trip.
Being a blog of class, NMTB prefers to travel by train – which would no doubt be met with approval from Lokomotiv Astana, Kazakhstan’s answer to the MK Dons.
Not a very good answer, mind.
The Kazakh Premier League – unsurprisingly not quite as lucrative as its English counterpart – has undergone a period of austerity during the global recession. Three clubs withdrew before the new season started in March.
"Go to Moscow. Then it's just as far again"
One of them was FK Almaty, who, probably based on the flawed notion that some football is better than no football, announced in January a merger with their woefully-named local rivals Megasport Depot (whom we met the other week as one of the worst-named clubs) to form Lokomotiv.
The club are sponsored by Temir Zholy, the state-owned railway company, and as part of the deal they went 600 miles to the capital Astana looking for fame and fortune, like some Kazakh Dick Whittington.
Except Lokomotiv weren’t accompanied by a cat. (They’re not allowed on trains).
Lokomotiv are emblematic of modern-day Kazakhstan, certainly more so than that odious, mankini-clad character Borat, whose hackneyed phrases will no doubt litter the newspapers this week.
It was 12 years ago that the vaulting aspirations of the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, prompted him to up sticks and transport Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty to Astana via scores of trains in a Herculean effort to create Central Asia’s pre-eminent city.
Lokomotiv are hoping their similar one-way ticket will terminate in them becoming Kazakhstan’s top football club. They want to emulate the success of Nazabayev’s creation; his (new) capital is a spectacular city.
Sadly for Lokomotiv, railway backers Temir Zholy won’t cough up the same amount as that ploughed into sprucing up Astana - reputed to be £10 billion. That'd buy a lot of players.
"...and we'll have an Argos over there"
Even to those who have watched Kazakh league football, it's an unfamiliar Premier League this year.
With one newborn team and three stiffs, 14 teams instead of the usual 16 are competing this time round.
That’s 14 teams in 14 different cities across Kazakhstan, which happens to be the world’s ninth-largest country. Hardly ideal, although it helps if your club's sponsored by the railways.
Lokomotiv's relocation means that there's no top-flight representative from Almaty. It’s the first time Kazakhstan’s largest city has been without a top-flight team since the league’s inauguration in 1992.
Because there was a significant flaw in Lokomotiv’s Astana reinvention: they had nowhere to play.
They'd arranged to move into the new national stadium planned as the next grandiloquent monument on the city’s skyline.
But it’s still under construction, so they mooted the idea of a return to Almaty, tail between the legs, to begin the season 600 miles away.
It also means that the sprightly new capital won't play host to England, but the English FA can hardly complain about a fiasco surrounding a new national stadium.
So Wayne Rooney & Co. will face Bernt Stork’s men at Megasport Depot’s former stadium in Almaty.
Lokomotiv may not have been welcomed back in Almaty, even temporarily.
Fans of the two clubs who amalgamated to form them may well have regarded the last-resort re-relocation as a slap in the face. Nor would it have helped build a fan-base in the capital.
Instead, Lokomotiv took up temporary residence at FK Astana’s stadium.
At least they've had better luck in the transfer market. Kazakh transfer coups have been few and far between, so the signing of the former Russian internationals Andrei Tikhonov and Yegor Titov - both former Spartak Moscow captains - has generated hitherto unparalleled interest in the Premier League.
Titov: "To Astana! Er, Almaty! Wherever!"
They’ve paved the way for Lokomotiv to make an impressive start; 10 games into the season they have amassed 24 points, one behind leaders and pre-season favourites Aktobe.
You may not have heard the last of Lokomotiv. They’ll be competing in the Europa League next season, by which time their new home will be ready.
That might even tempt NMTB to visit again. And yes, it can be achieved by train.
London to Brussels, then on to Cologne; switch to the daily Moscow service followed by a Trans-Siberian adventure to Yekaterinburg, where there’s another transfer at Petropavlovsk to catch a train to Almaty.
Total time: 106 hours and 38 minutes.
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Some say it was English merchants who introduced football to Kazakhstan early in the 20th Century during
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