Kazakhstan: Football minnow, futsal power

Central Asian country has emerged as a significant force in five-a-side futsal at both club and national level

AFP March 26, 2021


World Cup holders France will be clear favourites in a qualifying match for the 2022 tournament against Kazakhstan on Sunday, but if the two countries were meeting in the indoor version of the sport, Les Bleus would be underdogs.

Thanks to strong private investment and an influx of Brazilian expertise, Kazakhstan has emerged as a significant force in five-a-side futsal at both club and national level.

When it comes to what former Soviet countries sometimes refer to as "big football" -- played with 11 players -- the Central Asian country ranks 120th in the world.

The women's team has fared no better, recently rounding off a winless Euro 2022 qualifying campaign with a 12-0 defeat to France.

But in futsal, Kazakhstan is ranked seventh -- 16 places above France -- while the country's leading club Kairat won the sport's Champions League equivalent in 2013 and 2015.

Still, the road to respect in the sport has been a long one.

The first time Kazakhstan appeared on futsal's world stage was the 2000 World Cup in Guatemala, two years before Kazakhstan switched from membership of the Asian Football Confederation to joining UEFA, European football's governing body.

In the opening game of the tournament they were thrashed 12-1 by Brazil. They went on to crash out at the group stage.

Yermek Tursunov, a member of that squad who is now a famous filmmaker, told AFP that interference from politicians including then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev's son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev hampered preparations.

"They changed the coaching team, made us take some players, leave others behind. We went to a World Cup with a squad that had barely played together."

Aliyev's reign as football federation chief would see two unsuccessful bids to qualify for futsal World Cups before a falling-out with the ruling family led to him being exiled.

He committed suicide in an Austrian prison cell in 2015 as he faced double murder charges brought by Kazakhstan.

"I still believe if we had kept the old squad we would have got out of the group," said Tursunov of the Guatemala tournament.

Nowadays the same country that inflicted that humiliation is having the greatest bearing on the national team's success.

Kazakhstan's current coach Ricardo Kaka and his predecessor Cacau are both Brazilian nationals and the squad contains several naturalised Brazilian players.

Goalkeeper Leo Higuita -- as good with his feet as with his hands -- has won in his category three years in a row at the annual Futsal Planet awards.

Douglas Junior, another Brazilian import, is a key goal threat.

Both players were brought to Kazakhstan thanks to Kairat Orazbekov, a wealthy businessman who founded AFC Kairat, a club based in the largest city Almaty which has launched regular scouting missions to South America.

"We nurtured our Brazilian talent here in Almaty. Nobody in Brazil knew them. Now the whole world knows them," Orazbekov told AFP.

Their inclusion, allied with a stress on innovative coaching, has fuelled "the very strong growth" of local Kazakh players, Orazbekov said.

His club AFC Kairat has become the scourge of Barcelona's team in fustal, beating the Blaugrana on several occasions, most recently in front of a packed-out 12,000-seater Almaty Arena for the semi-finals of the 2019 UEFA futsal cup that the city hosted.

Kazakhstan's most capped player and team captain is Dinmukhambet Suleimenov, a former AFC Kairat veteran who is now working as player-coach for another club.

At 39, he has witnessed most of Kazakh futsal's peaks and troughs. In the immediate years after the switch to UEFA, the country struggled with stiffer competition than in Asian qualifying tournaments, he said.

An important milestone was a World Cup qualifying victory over Portugal, another futsal powerhouse, in 2015.

"We felt this swell of strength -- now we can do this," he told AFP.

At junior level, the sport's future is also looking bright, according to Orazbekov who notes that most schools have their own futsal pitch.

He said the same can't be said for football, where infrastructure is lacking.

"If Slovakia has maybe 1,200 professional fields and Belgium has three times as many, we have 50 at the best. You can't box without a ring, you can't play football without fields," Orazbekov told AFP.

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