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Minnow FC Astana Splashes Into Champions League, Seeking Attention

Ghanaian Patrick Twumasi (right) of FC Astana crosses the ball during a game against HJK Helsinki in Astana on August 5.
Ghanaian Patrick Twumasi (right) of FC Astana crosses the ball during a game against HJK Helsinki in Astana on August 5.

Soccer fans burst into the streets of the Kazakh capital to celebrate after FC Astana became the first Central Asian team to advance to the group stage of Europe’s Champions League, the most exclusive club tournament in the world.

FC Astana’s 1-1 draw with APOEL in Cyprus on August 26, after a late goal by Nemanja Maksimovic, gave the Kazakh club a 2-1 aggregate win after its 1-0 victory over APOEL at home last week.

The Kazakh team will debut in the Champions League in Group C, after being drawn on August 27 with Portugal’s Benfica, Spain’s Atletico, and the Turkish club Galatasaray.

FC Astana’s success also means a huge windfall for the club, as each of the 32 teams in the Champions League gets about $13.1 million -- plus some $1.7 million for each win and roughly $570,000 for every draw.

While most soccer teams in Europe would consider the millions of dollars in potential earnings to be the biggest benefit of playing in the Champions League, that’s not necessarily the case for FC Astana and its owners.

That’s because FC Astana is -- like many things in Kazakhstan -- a state-owned creation of the government that was designed to promote the country's newly minted, remote, and rather unknown capital city: Astana.

The official owner of the club -- which was only created six years ago -- is Kazakhstan’s super-rich sovereign-wealth fund, known as Samuryq-Qazyna.

Among the fund’s possessions are Kazakhstan’s postal system and the state oil and gas company KazMunayGas, as well as banks, mines, airlines, airports, and the country’s railroads -- just to name a few of its assets.

Samuryq-Qazyna’s extensive holdings -- estimated to be worth about $75 billion -- technically make FC Astana one of the richest teams in the Champions League.

The head of Samuryq-Qazyna is Omirzaq Shukeev, a former deputy prime minister and economics adviser to omnipotent President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

FC Astana is also a member of Nazarbaev’s Astana Presidential Sports Club, created by the president in 2012 to provide financial support for several sports teams that compete on the international stage.

The Nazarbaev club’s seven professional sports teams all have Astana in their name, and several feature the powder blue and yellow colors of the Kazakh flag.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

The best-known team abroad is the Astana bicycle racing team, which has had such world-class cyclists as Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, and Aleksandr Vinokourov ride for it.

Although those three cyclists were nearly as famous for the performance-enhancing drug scandals that surrounded them as for the Tour de France titles and stage victories they won and were later stripped of, the Astana cycling team is an established part of international cycling and has brought incalculable amounts of mostly positive publicity to the Astana brand -- the real goal of the club’s financial backers.

Kazakh officials are no doubt hoping that FC Astana will now take such worldwide PR benefits to a new level by playing against some of the sports top soccer teams in the Champions League, one of the most-watched sports competitions in the world.

Nazarbaev congratulated the team after the APOEL match and noted that “Astana will now have soccer battles with the world brands.”

Darhan Kaletaev, FC Astana’s chairman of the board, was quick to thank the godfather of the Astana sports enterprise.

"This victory was achieved thanks to the hard work of the coaching staff, the football-loving people of Astana, and the support of the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev," he said.

The team’s success may help Kazakh officials forget the sting of narrowly missing out on the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics last month.

The Olympic Games would have brought priceless positive publicity to Kazakhstan, where Nazarbaev -- in power since before the 1991 Soviet breakup -- exercises tight control over society, politics, and the economy.

International human rights groups had protested the possibility of awarding the games to Kazakhstan because of its dismal rights record.

Kazakhstan’s efforts and millions of dollars spent were in vain when it lost the Olympic bid to Beijing by a 44-to-40 vote by International Olympic Committee members on July 31.

FC Astana is the lowest ranked of the 32 teams in the Champions League and, although it avoided being grouped with such world powers as defending champion FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Manchester United, will be hard pressed to win many games.

If FC Astana can finish in the top two of Group C it will advance to the round of 16 that will be played in early 2016.

Even if it doesn't, the exposure the Kazakh team and its namesake, Astana, will get from the Champions League's worldwide audience of hundreds of millions of viewers seems sure to make its owners and other officials in Astana quite happy.

With reporting by Erzhan Karabekov and Ruslan Medelbek from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service