The home opener on a recent Saturday for FC Kairat, Kazakhstan’s most storied football club, featured lots of pre-game pomp, the sort of festivities that tend to swaddle major sporting events around the globe.
Roza Rymbaeva, the country’s best known pop diva, warmed up the spectators with a set of oldies-but-goodies, and, later, sang the national anthem. In between, soldiers marched in formation, team mascots high-fived fans, a falconer showed off his stuff, and youngsters waved a giant parachute-like banner at midfield.
The only thing lacking on the occasion were fans. Attendance for the early March match between Kairat and Zhetysu-Taldykorgan was a paltry 5,000, if that. Kairat’s home -- the 25,000-seat Central Stadium, situated in the heart of Almaty, a city of almost 1.5 million -- felt cold and cavernous at kickoff.
The contrast between the big-game hype and the empty seats reflects an anomaly in Kazakhstan -- a country that, in economic terms, is on the make. The country’s leaders, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down, emphasize economic success, and don’t hesitate to lavish funds on higher education and infrastructure development. All the investment has paid off: a recent study by a British think tank ranked Kazakhstan as the most prosperous of formerly Soviet republics.
Yet, amid this rush toward prosperity, sports have been left behind. Little of the financial acumen that Kazakhstan has accumulated over the past two decades has trickled down to sports management. With the possible exception of cycling – which never has had a huge following in Kazakhstan -- major sports, especially football and hockey, have floundered during the independence era. The country’s professional teams haven’t recovered from the economic chaos that accompanied the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Elsewhere, professional teams can be a form of bling for tycoons. Just take a look at England’s Premier League, which, besides offering some of the best competition in the world, has become a playground for Russian oligarchs, American hedge-fund billionaires and Middle Eastern oil sheikhs. Kazakhstan, thanks to its energy boom, now has its fair share of grandees. But so far, they remain on the sidelines when it comes to sports ownership. The same goes for lots of Kazakhstani companies that are flush with cash.
Kazakhstan’s top football division is called the Premier League, but there is nothing especially top-flight about it. The level of play is mediocre, and attendance is anemic. The operations of 11 of the 12 clubs in the league are heavily dependent on local government subsidies. In effect, most teams are state-funded “social projects” of the regions or cities in which they play, and funding is largely dependent on the whims of local officials. The only exception is FC Kairat, which for the last three years, has had a major corporate sponsor, the energy company KazRosGas.
“No team is able to turn a profit on its own,” said Sergei Railyan, the chief sports editor for the Almaty-based Karavan newspaper and a television commentator on football. “A lot of teams have no substantial revenue.”
Underscoring the financial pressures facing teams, the Kazakhstani Premier League contracted for the 2013 season, going down to 12 teams from 14 the previous year. The bottom two finishers in the 2012 season were relegated and effectively weren’t replaced. In addition, money woes helped prompt one team that had avoided relegation, Kaisar Kyzl-Orda, to drop out, according to Railyan. Kaisar’s place was filled by FC Vostok from the northern city of Oskemen, formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk.
A money crunch isn’t the main reason that the league is languishing. Local football observers say operating budgets for Premier League teams range from about $4 million to $20 million, which, for Central Asia, is generous enough. What club operators and league officials lack is vision, according to Geniy Tulegenov, a long-time football writer and editor-in-chief of the sports news portal, sportinfo.kz.
“All the money goes to immediate needs. … They don’t invest in the future, nothing goes to kids,” Tulegenov said. “The sport is run by a bunch of time-servers and short-term thinkers.”
Sports-marketing remains an alien concept to most clubs, and the league hasn’t exactly been on the ball with a television deal. Kairat’s league opener, for example, wasn’t broadcast live. The tendency of teams to overpay for middling foreign talent is another obstacle, according to Tulegenov and other observers. “It’s not that we’re against foreign players, but with so many coming to play here, it slows the development of local players,” he said.
Kazakhstan is not a country that lacks enthusiasm for football. That much was evident on March 22, when the Kazakkhstani national team played before a packed stadium in Astana, losing to Germany 3-0 in a game that started at midnight local time in order to accommodate a prime time audience back in Germany.
Seilda Baishakov, a vice president of the Kazakhstani Football Federation (KFF), remembers when FC Kairat played in the former Soviet Union’s top division and would attract “overflow crowds.” He added that the KFF was working hard to restore the sport to its former glory.
As Baishakov tells it, the development of Kazakhstani football suffered because of a “short-sighted” choice made back in 1992, when, following Communism’s demise, football officials opted to join the Asian Football Confederation, rather than the European governing body, UEFA. A decade later, Kazakhstan switched to UEFA.
“The quality of European football is much higher. We lost a lot during those 10 years [spent in the Asian confederation],” claimed Baishakov, who himself was a star defender for Kairat in the 1970s and even had a few caps for the Soviet national team.
Baishakov’s argument is undermined somewhat by the fact that the national team from neighboring Uzbekistan, a member of the Asian confederation, is currently ranked 59th in the world by FIFA and stands a decent chance of qualifying for the World Cup Finals, to be held in Brazil in 2014. The Kazakhstani squad, meanwhile, is ranked 139th, and is not going anywhere soon. Even so, Baishakov insists than the league “is on the right track.”
Mikhail Gurman, another top league official, asserted that the quality of play has vastly improved over the past three years. “Now the league is more competitive. … There are no push-overs.”
The KFF has a commercial director who works with clubs to attract corporate sponsorships. Baishakov also says the federation has a plan to get private investors interested in Premier League clubs.
But to get the plan rolling, Kazakhstani football must solve a conundrum. High-rollers and corporate sponsors will be interested in investing only “when clubs do better in European competitions and the national team starts doing well,” Baishakov maintained. Meanwhile, Tulegenov and other observers say that for teams to fare better internationally, they’ll need better players, and for that to happen, significant investment is needed for player development.
Critics of the federation contend that the KFF’s strategic plan is little more than wishful thinking and lacks specifics.
Erik Sadykov, the Almaty correspondent for the Russian outlet Sport Express, thinks things can change only if the national government takes a more active interest in sports. Sadykov suggested Astana could start by allocating funds to develop youth football programs across the country.
“If youth instructors received better than miserly wages, they’d do a much better job,” he said. The government could also use the many levers at its disposal to encourage individuals and companies take on ownership and sponsorship roles on the professional level.
State spending on football would seem to be in the government’s interests. Public discontent is rising in many parts of Kazakhstan because of the lopsided distribution of wealth, and the government has struggled to develop an effective public policy responses. Investment in sports, especially in western Kazakhstan, where wages tend to be low and the unemployment rate high, could have multiple benefits, tapping new talent for professional leagues and, more broadly, channeling the frustrations of the local population in a more positive direction.
“Becoming a sports fan can have healthy social benefits,” Sadykov said. “If kids get involved in sports they aren’t on computers so much, and they don’t get into alcohol and drugs.”
Asked why the national government hasn’t focused on sports so far, Sadykov paused briefly then said: “Officials simply haven’t thought of this [social] aspect yet.”
Justin Burke is the executive editor of Eurasianet.