Accessibility links

Breaking News

'Miracles Happen!': Kazakh Soccer Victory Over Denmark Sweetens Tough UEFA Journey

Kazakhstan's Abat Aimbetov (center) celebrates scoring the winning goal with teammates on March 26.
Kazakhstan's Abat Aimbetov (center) celebrates scoring the winning goal with teammates on March 26.

"It's not often that we live through this...feeling of euphoria," said the commentator on a major Kazakh sports channel as the seconds ticked down on perhaps the national soccer team's biggest victory in its history.

Minutes earlier, striker Abat Aimbetov had leapt up and nodded in a goal with just minutes remaining to give Kazakhstan a 3-2 lead against Denmark, ripping his shirt off in celebration as the nearly 30,000 fans in Astana Arena exploded in joyful disbelief.

Amid unbearable drama and as fans bayed for the final whistle, Kazakhstan hung on to defeat the top seed in its qualifying group for the 2024 European Championships and complete a stunning comeback from 2-0 down.

Such are the moments that Kazakh fans surely dreamed of two decades ago when their country switched from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

But with the oil-rich Central Asian country coming nowhere near qualifying for a major tournament since the change, many wonder if the decision was a smart one.

"We don't yet know the value of this one result. Is it just more emotions or will it open the road to real progress?" soccer analyst Yesei Zhenisuly asked.

Nevertheless, like most observers, he believes that there is "no way back," despite many calls about a decade ago from politicians and sporting figures for a return to the AFC.

"If you look at the soccer infrastructure around Asia, it is poor. We can say that we have left that behind now. We should be looking ahead instead. We have made some steps, even if it is not as many as our fans would have liked," Zhenisuly told RFE/RL.

One Foot Here, One Foot There

Kazakhstan, currently ranked 115th in the world compared to Denmark's placing of 18th, is one of the few countries with the luxury of choosing with which continent it will play its soccer.

Roughly one-10th of its almost 3 million square kilometers of territory lies west of the Ural River in Europe, a chunk of land that is in itself larger than most European countries.

Russia -- which is barred from qualifying for the European Championship in Germany as part of widespread sporting fallout from Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine -- is another thanks to its sprawling territory.

The Russian Football Union (RFU) has been openly toying with the idea of changing federations as disastrous relations with the majority of UEFA member states over the war in Ukraine show no signs of improving in the near future.

That situation recalls the one faced by fellow UEFA member Israel, which had no territorial basis for joining but which saw its bedeviled membership in the AFC effectively ended in a members' vote the year after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Kazakhstan officially joined UEFA in 2002 but could have done so even earlier, according to Kuralbek Ordabaev, a legendary Soviet-era Kazakh goalkeeper who served as the last head of the national federation before it left the AFC.

"The problem was the National Olympic Committee. Verbally they were supportive, but when it came to putting pen to paper, they refused," he recalled.

The application for membership came under Ordabaev's successor, Rakhat Aliev, the later-disgraced and now-deceased former son-in-law of Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

"Political will appeared and there were personal relationships that sped things up," Ordabaev told RFE/RL. "Nazarbaev had a strong relationship with the king of Spain, who was a close friend of [Joao] Havelange, the head of [soccer's] world governing body, FIFA."

'Raising Their Game'

Since then, Kazakhstan has mostly found itself at the bottom or second from the bottom of qualifying groups for the World Cup and the European Championships.

Uzbekistan, a natural point of comparison due to the pair's communist-era soccer rivalry, has more than once had the smell of a World Cup in its nostrils, only to fall at the penultimate hurdle.

Might Kazakhstan have made it to that famous tournament if it had stayed in Asia?

In 2011, during a particularly dismal European Championships qualification bid that had seen the national team lose five consecutive matches without scoring a goal, Tourism and Sports Minister Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov even floated the idea in parliament of a return to the AFC.

Kazakhstan players celebrate their victory over Denmark in Astana on March 26.
Kazakhstan players celebrate their victory over Denmark in Astana on March 26.

But if opinion was more evenly split then, there is now consensus that the path with UEFA offers greater returns.

"UEFA means not just better football but better promotion," said Mikhail Vasilyev, a longtime sports journalist and co-founder of the sports Telegram channel Dyadya Vanya.

The most obvious benefits, he said, are at the club level, for Kazakh soccer teams like the capital's FC Astana and Almaty's FC Kairat, who have had the opportunity to play in lucrative European club competitions that Asia has no answer for.

In 2015, FC Astana became the first Kazakh team to reach the money-spinning group stages of the UEFA Champions League.

And such success has a knock-on effect on the national game, Vasilyev explains. "Back in the 1990s, the annual budget of a good Kazakh club might have been $1.5 million at most. After Kazakhstan entered UEFA, these budgets jumped up several times. Playing in these competitions allowed clubs to attract better-quality players from abroad and better-quality trainers, and so local players have to raise their game to become more competitive," the journalist said.

The March 26 victory over Denmark isn't Kazakhstan's only notable result in recent times.

The last time there were qualifiers for the European Championships, the national team beat Scotland 3-0 at home, a result that ended Alex McLeish's tenure as Scotland's coach.

Kazakhstan won three of their 10 games in that group, but still finished fifth out of six teams.

Last year was a good year for the national team, which recorded first-ever victories over Belarus and Slovakia in a friendly tournament called the UEFA Nations League.

And with three points out of six already in this Euro qualifying campaign, match analyst Zhenisuly argues that a final placing of third would represent real progress, even if it would not be enough to qualify for next year's tournament in Germany.

"If you think back to 2003 and our qualifying game against Portugal, when Cristiano Ronaldo made his international debut, the players of that generation were more frightened of the ball. This generation of players is not afraid to take the initiative," Zhenisuly said, while maintaining that more Kazakh players need to play in leagues outside the country for the national team to progress further.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo drives the ball past Kazakhstan's Renat Abdalin during a friendly soccer match in 2003 in Chaves, Portugal, Ronaldo's first for his country.
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo drives the ball past Kazakhstan's Renat Abdalin during a friendly soccer match in 2003 in Chaves, Portugal, Ronaldo's first for his country.

The initiative was well taken in the comeback against Denmark, as the momentum inside the stadium began to turn in the home team's favor after Kazakhstan scored a penalty with 17 minutes left on the clock.

Up next was a spectacular long-range blast from captain Askhat Tagybergen that knotted the game at 2-2, setting the scene for Aimbetov's game-winning goal in the 89th minute.

"In sport, miracles happen, and they just went for it," said Ordabaev, the former federation chief.

Yet the former goalkeeper is also cautious not to read too much into the upset.

"You could see the Danes relaxed. There is the long flight here [and] perhaps some difficulty for them with the artificial pitch that we use," he said.

"But now, after this result, our opponents will not underestimate us. They will know that when you play against the Kazakhs, you have to play until the end."

  • 16x9 Image

    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.