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Kazakhs ready for EURO debut

Kazakhstan make their UEFA European Championship debut on Wednesday with defender Samat Smakov promising "a real battle" against Belgium in Brussels.

Kazakhstan make their UEFA European Championship debut on Wednesday with defender Samat Smakov promising "a real battle" against Belgium in Brussels.

Confederation switch
Having switched from the Asian Football Confederation to UEFA in 2002, the Football Union of Kazakhstan registered too late to compete in UEFA EURO 2004™ qualification, but after a stiff test in their first European campaign - the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifiers - they are ready to try again. "I can assure you it will be a real battle," FC Kairat Almaty player Smakov told uefa.com. "We cannot underestimate our task, but Belgium should not underestimate us either. Our strength is the unity of our squad. We have also brought in some young players who want to prove their worth. We all know that courage combined with experience can overcome all obstacles."

Maiden campaign
Kazakhstan's World Cup challenge ended with just one point from qualifying Group 2 - a 0-0 draw in Georgia. Another steep learning curve awaits in the UEFA EURO 2008™ tournament. "It takes more than a year, or one qualifying campaign, to become even a middle-ranking European team," Smakov continued. "The difference between the sides we beat in Asia from time to time and those we face in Europe turned out to be huge. Now we are building a team with a new style. We are trying to improve our skills, get more strength in depth, and become mentally stronger. That is why we have hired a Dutch coach. The ice is broken. We are now better on the ball."

'Snow Leopards'
The Dutchman in question is 47-year-old Arno Pijpers, the former Estonia coach who replaced ex-Kazakh international Sergey Timofeev after the World Cup campaign. His new-look 'Snow Leopards' have been working hard, playing friendlies against Jordan, Korea DPR, Finland, Greece, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan ahead of the Belgium game. "I can guarantee that all 21 players are in good spirits," Pijpers told uefa.com. "I know Belgian football well and we have tried out tactics that should help us cope with their style of play. I will not make predictions, but I would point out once again that Belgium are dangerous opponents."

Sensible ambitions
With Finland, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Azerbaijan and Armenia completing qualifying Group A, Pijpers is keeping realistic ambitions. "Our task is to try our best and play decently," he said. "We have three World Cup finalists in our group so it is easy to name the favourites, but we have to take another step forward compared with our World Cup campaign. Of course, in the depth of our souls, everyone dreams of reaching the finals. Latvia showed it can be done and while I have a lot of respect for them, I cannot say they are much better than us. They have experience of playing in Europe and we have to mature just like them."

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