FC Okzhetpes Kokshetau are preparing for a UEFA Europa League first qualifying round tie against FC Zimbru Chişinău in Moldova tonight despite finishing ninth in Kazakhstan, with club president Marat Ospanov saying European competition is "a real jackpot for our club".
According to UEFA's access list for the inaugural edition of the new competition, the second and third-placed sides in Kazakhstan qualify for the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round, with a second qualifying round place going to the cup winners. However, with last year's runners-up FC Lokomotiv Astana – formed by the merger of FC Megasport and FC Alma-Ata – not holding a UEFA licence and several other teams dropping out for similar reasons, or budget problems, Okzhetpes have found themselves being thrust into the limelight.
This has created a major stir in Kokshetau, a city of 125,000 in the north of the country. "This is a real jackpot for our club, our city and the whole of the Akmola province," said president Ospanov. "It is something we could only have dreamed of." That is certainly true. Since their foundation as FC Torpedo Kokshetau in 1968, the side have done little to draw attention to themselves. Indeed, their ninth-placed finish in 2008 matched their best-ever league ranking, achieved in 2005.
However, if luck has played a part in their elevation to the European stage, the club are doing their best, retrospectively, to earn it. Hired in the close season, 38-year-old coach Eduard Glazunov has already overseen a 2-1 win away to champions FK Aktobe this term, and while his charges are tenth in the 14-team table, they have gained respect with their fighting spirit.
Glazunov was in charge of FC Zhetysu Taldykorgan when they lost to Budapest Honvéd FC in last season's UEFA Intertoto Cup, and told uefa.com: "I have to thank fate for giving me a second chance of European football. The Europa League is a big school for me. I'm a young coach and there is still a lot to learn. We don't have many stars but we have leaders, like our captain Serik Dosmanbetov. I want everybody to see we deserve to play in Europe."
The club take their name from a cliff, the Okzhetpes, which translates as 'an arrow won't reach'. Fan club president Viktor Kruk told uefa.com: "[Eighteenth century] Kazakh ruler Ablai Khan could not decide which of his warriors to give a captive girl to, so he allowed her to choose a husband for herself. She climbed to the top of the highest cliff and said she would marry whoever hit her shawl with an arrow. Nobody managed it."
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