FC Shakhter Karagandy are on the verge of springing a major surprise at the expense of FC BATE Borisov in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round on Tuesday.
Although Shakhter have never been outside of the Kazakh top flight, their best finish until 2011 was third. However, they have since racked up two successive league titles and are now hungry to break further new ground by reaching the group stage of a UEFA competition for the first time. Last week's 1-0 first-leg away victory over BATE has reinforced that ambition.
Karagandy is an industrial city, one of the largest in Kazakhstan. It is a place of coal miners and metal workers who have always loved their football but have been largely starved of success for their team. With Shakhter coming third in the Kazakh Premier League on three occasions, few dared hope for more until the arrival of Russian coach Viktor Kumykov in 2011.
Kumykov did not have the loftiest of reputations, yet he has overseen a glorious new era for a club which remains very much in touch with its roots. 'Shakhter' is the Russian word for 'coal miner', meaning new signings are often initiated with a trip down the local mines – something not for the faint-hearted.
"I remember us descending 521m one day," defender Yevgeni Tarasov told UEFA.com. "Just think about that! We saw how difficult the pitmen's working conditions are. Our team saw then what backbreaking labour it is. Despite all the dangers of the coal-mining industry these people do a very hard job. We even saw lava! This is something you don't forget."
Shakhter have a reputation for playing physical football with a heavy emphasis on set pieces. With a number of tall powerful players in the squad, Kumykov's charges are particularly effective in the air. Indeed, they are even dangerous from throw-ins, with Gediminas Vičius's delivery more menacing than many a free-kick or corner.
"It is a big stereotype," countered striker Sergei Khizhnichenko, who scored the 48th-minute winner against BATE in Belarus. "Everyone thinks we can only score from dead balls, that Vičius just throws the ball and we all bomb into the area. Yes, set pieces are our secret weapon, but we also score a lot on the break and from build-up play. We can vary it on the pitch. Our main weapon is our unity, industry and team spirit."
With the side supported by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaye, himself a former metal worker, and Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov, previously governor of the Karagandy region, their success is perhaps not as unexpected as some suggest. However, the 50-year-old Kumykov is still arguably the club's biggest asset. He feels that continuity is key to any achievements, with just a handful of additions augmenting the playing staff every year.
"We don't have equal replacements for our main players, we lack strength-in-depth and I can't rest half of the squad without doing harm," he said. "But, on the other hand, this might be doing good for our team understanding, because my lads know what to do on the pitch. Everyone knows his job."
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