By Timur Kamashev and Paul Gognidze
Kazakhstan marked their first appearance as a UEFA nation with a 1-1 draw against Estonia in Almaty on 7 July with the 'little hurricane', Oleg Litvinenko, taking the honour of scoring their first UEFA goal. However, although UEFA's 52nd member association were only admitted at the XXVI Ordinary UEFA Congress in Stockholm in April, the history of football in Kazakhstan dates back to 1913.
A vast nation of steppe and incredible oil resources, Kazakhstan was a region of the Russian Empire in 1913, but in the town of Semipalatinsk, there were already 15 organised teams competing in the city championship. The town even had its own Premier League and second division.
According to legend, English merchants brought football to Semipalatinsk - an important trading centre at that time - and perhaps the most famous player of that early stage of Kazakh football was Muhtar Auezov. The author of the outstanding 'The Path of Abay' - which has been translated into 48 languages - Auezov was also a player for one of the first Kazakh clubs, FC Yarysh.
Yarysh were the first team in Kazakhstan to play an international game against prisoners captured in the course of the First World War, including two players who had appeared in the 1912 Olympics. The game played in the central square in Semipalatinsk was merely the start for Kazakh clubs as sides from Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar gradually started to play against clubs from other parts of the Empire.
Kazakhstan's entry into the Soviet Union was marked by the building of the first national football stadium in Jabul in 1921. In 1928 the first national team was formed, while Pavlodar hosted the first national championship that same year. In a Spartakiada, the Soviet internal version of the Olympics, Kazakhstan finished in a respectable second place. Eight years later, in 1936, FC Dinamo Aktuybinsk became the first professional Kazakh side to join the newly-formed Soviet Supreme League.
Kairat make their mark
Kazakh clubs had their first taste of European football in 1957 when FC Kairat Almaty - who will compete in this season's UEFA Cup - won 4-0 against Finnish side IFK Vaasa in a friendly game, and two years later, the Football Federation of Soviet Kazakhstan was formed. The impact of the organization was swift, and in 1963, Kairat raised the flag for Kazakh football by advancing to the semi-finals of the USSR Cup where they were knocked out 2-1 by FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
While Kairat set the standard in the USSR, smaller sides were already competing in Kazakh league and cup competitions with FC Dinamo Aktyubinsk winning the first Class B title and FC Dinamo Tselinograd taking the first Kazakh Cup.
1971 was to prove a momentous year in the history of Kazakh football. First, Kairat won 2-1 against FC Rapid Bucuresti in front of 32,000 fans in Almaty to take the Cup of the European Sport Union of Railway Workers, but one Kairat player - defender Seilda Bayshakov - was to win even higher honours.
He won the 1971 award for the Supreme Soviet League's best newcomer and went on to become the first Kazakh player to appear for the USSR national side, winning his first cap in a game against Hungary in 1977. Alexander Hapsalis and Alexander Kadeykin also attained hero status in Kazakhstan as they played in the USSR squad which won the 1976 UEFA European Under-19 Championship.
The biggest successes were to come in 1988, however, as Kairat midfield player Evgeny Yarovenko helped the USSR win footballing gold at the Seoul Olympics before leading his side to a 4-1 win against Azerbaijani side FC Neftchi to clinch the 1988 USSR Football Federation Cup.
Kairat made history again four years later as Kazakhstan gained independence, winning the first ever Kazakh Superliga title, and a year later in 1993, Kazakhstan became a member of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
FC Elimay forward Oleg Litvinenko quickly emerged as the greatest player in the independent Kazakhstan, winning the Asian Player of the Year title in 1995 after leading the national side on a successful campaign to the finals of the Olympic games in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, FC Ordabasy Shikment and Kairat set the standard in AFC competitions by reaching the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup Winners' Cup in 1996 and 2000 respectively. FC Irtyskh of Pavlodar went one better, reaching the semi-final of the 2001 Asian Club Championship.
Youth Cup appearance
The positive progress continued as coach Vladimir Fomichev took Kazakhstan to the finals of the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship. Fomichev was honoured for his achievements as he was named as he moved on to work with the Kazakh Olympic side.
In 2000, the Kazakhstan Football Federation voted Rahat Aliyev as president, renamed themselves the Football Union of Kazakhstan (FSK), and took a decision to exercise their territorial right to join UEFA. About 15 per cent of Kazakhstan is in Europe, and it was a long-held dream of fans, players and officials to become part of UEFA.
The heart of Europe
On 25 April 2002 that dream came true. Now FC Zhenis Astana are preparing for their UEFA Champions League debut while FC Atyrau and Kairat are competing in the UEFA Cup. One of the most distant outposts of the UEFA footballing family, they are in the heart of European football now.
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