Islambek Kuat: Turkey's friend in Kazakhstan

"I will be cheering for Turkey in France," Kazakhstan midfielder Islambek Kuat told UEFA.com after his goal helped to send Fatih Terim's side to UEFA EURO 2016.

Islambek Kuat meets some of his Turkish fans at a Kairat game
Islambek Kuat meets some of his Turkish fans at a Kairat game ©Madiyar Zhumabayev

In the space of three months, Islambek Kuat made it from Kairat Almaty's reserve team to becoming perhaps the most celebrated footballer in Kazakhstan.

The 22-year-old midfielder is regarded as an exciting prospect in his native country, but became an overnight sensation in Turkey when his winning goal against Latvia ensured that Fatih Terim's side would go to UEFA EURO 2016 as the best third-placed side in the European Qualifiers.

"I don't know how they got my number, but lots of Turkish fans called me in the following days and invited to Istanbul," Kuat told UEFA.com. "They wanted to show me their city and host some sort of a party. I had to refuse because of the tight schedule at Kairat. It was a bit strange but now I understand how passionate they are about football."

Such was the fervour in the hours following the match that it was suggested that a street in Istanbul be named in honour of Kuat, while more than one fan on social media promised to name their children in honour of the midfielder – not a bad idea, since Kuat means strength or power in the Kazakh language.

The goal that sent Turkey to UEFA EURO 2016
The goal that sent Turkey to UEFA EURO 2016

A dozen Turkish fans presented him with gifts and a bouquet of flowers, and thanked him personally at half-time during Kairat's game against Atyrau on 17 October.

"They all thanked me for their EURO 2016 berth as if it was me alone who defeated Latvia, not the whole team," Kuat said. "To tell the truth, we never thought about the possibility of helping Turkey. All we wanted was to avoid finishing bottom of our group. But now – after all these nice words – I will be cheering for Turkey in France."

Even without his newfound celebrity status, it would have been an exciting campaign for Kuat, who started the season rooted to the bench with his club. "I had to compete with experienced Mikhail Bakaev who is head and shoulders above me, and I know that very well," he said. "The coach only used me when Bakaev or other the central midfielders were unavailable. But I didn't lose hope. I knew my chance would come."

An injury for Bakaev in the summer duly placed the ball at his feet, and while the signing of the vastly experienced Anatoliy Tymoschuk seemed to place him further down the pecking order, Kuat played well enough in UEFA Europa League qualifying for Kairat to earn a senior competitive debut for Kazakhstan in September, before scoring in back-to-back qualifiers against the Netherlands and Latvia in October.

The perfect way to finish the year might be with a permanent move to Turkey, where his party invite is still open. Has he had any call from Süper Lig clubs? "No, none of them have called me," he admitted. "But I have big goals at Kairat. I have much more work to do here."

Highlights: Turkey 1-0 Iceland
Highlights: Turkey 1-0 Iceland
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