Of the 20 teams that will vie for ten places in the UEFA Champions League group stage over the next few weeks, none are perhaps as unsung as Celtic FC's play-off opponents FC Shakhter Karagandy. UEFA.com traces the Kazakhstani outfit's rise from obscurity to the verge of a seat at European football's top table.
Out of the shadows
FC Kairat Almaty are historically Kazakhstan's strongest club, regional powerhouses who rubbed shoulders with the big boys during the Soviet era. Shakhter were always peripheral, never climbing above the bulky third tier of the league structure, but their fortunes began to change after independence in 1992. Third in 1995, 2007 and 2009, the Karagandy side made the breakthrough with their first championship in 2011, successfully defending their crown last term.
A rich seam
Ukrainian champions FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Belarus's FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk and Shakhter – if they sound similar, then that's because they are, all linked by the common heritage of mining (Shakhter translates as pitmen). It is a gruelling muscular existence, but on the pitch Karagandy is more famous for its artisans. None more so than Nikolai Igamberdiev, whose 182 goals for the club between 1972 and 1983 afford him lasting reverence.
Igamberdiev's record is unlikely to be broken, even if Andrei Finonchenko is not too far behind at 116 goals and counting – though time is running out on the 31-year-old. The Karagandy-born striker has joined the team's immortals, however, as a one-club man who leads Shakhter on and off the pitch. "Like many Karagandy boys I dreamed of playing for Shakhter," he said. "I was a trainee, a ball boy, then when I got into the first team I realised I wanted to change the club. I had offers from elsewhere but money is not the most important thing in life. There have been good and bad times, but I thank destiny I'm here."
Breaking new ground
Shakhter have won back-to-back Premier League titles but a hat-trick looks unlikely as they head into the summer season's play-offs a long way adrift of leaders FC Aktobe. Yet in reaching the UEFA Champions League play-offs they have become the first Kazakh side to guarantee a place in the group stage of a UEFA competition (if they lose to Celtic they will transfer to the UEFA Europa League). Aktobe, who face FC Dynamo Kyiv in the UEFA Europa League play-offs, could be the second.
Days of our lives
"My work with Shakhter is the high point of my career," said coach Viktor Kumykov. "Twice we have been crowned champions and now we have qualified for the Champions League play-offs. These are my best days! But I hope we can achieve even more. I like Karagandy, a special city with an intimate feel. The people here are simple and kind and give us great support."
Home from home
Those fans will have to do a bit of travelling to get behind their team in Europe this season as Shakhter will play their home matches in Astana. However, with games like the first leg against Celtic on 20 August and the return in Scotland eight days later, the 434km round trip does not seem so far.
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