Kazakhstan look west for inspiration
Soccer: Drive 300 kilometres from the Kazakh national team's training complex and you will reach China. But when it comes to soccer, the former Soviet republic prefers to look the other way: Europe. Ten years have passed since Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country five times the size of France, joined Uefa. Within the next decade, the country hopes a German-inspired youth development plan will have it knocking on the door of a major tournament.
"I wouldn't say Asian teams are weaker opponents - there are a lot of good teams - but it's better to be in Europe," Kairat Nurdauletov, says the national team captain. "When you play at Wembley or in Turkey, when the stadium is full and you can't hear yourself think, that's when you really feel like you're a footballer," the 29-year-old midfielder said.
Kazakhstan joined Uefa in April 2002, having resigned its membership of the Asian Football Confederation the previous year. Nurdauletov was an unused substitute during the match he describes as Kazakhstan's biggest achievement since: a 2-1 defeat of Serbia in March 2007. The last decade, however, has also been dogged by political intrigue. The former head of the football federation, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, fled the country after falling out with Kazakhstan's powerful leader. The new-look federation has recently embarked on a 10-year plan to develop youth football, based on the German model. The German Football Federation will even supervise a programme to install a youth centre at every Premier League club next year.
Clubs will pay qualified coaches around €800 per month to develop children from the age of 10. The federation expects the first crop of trainees to break into the national youth side in five years. "In Germany, it's normal for every club to have something like this," said midfielder Heinrich Schmidtgal. "Here, they're a few years behind, but something is being done."
The countries are bonded by the large ethnic German population inherited by Kazakhstan after independence from the Soviet Union, descendents of the Volga Germans exiled to the steppe by Soviet leader Josef Stalin after the second World War. Schmidtgal, 26, was born in Kazakhstan but spent most of his childhood in Germany. His career in the Bundesliga, where he plays for newly promoted Greuther Fuerth, is a frequent topic of conversation with team mates in the Kazakh national side. "I tell them the level is very high, that you have no time in the game to think about what you're going to do," he said.