Unfortunately for Scotland news of their abject 3-0 defeat was making headline news in a country so vast it occupies two time zones. Kazakhstan is not the Faroe Isles – neither is it San Marino, where Scotland’s trip goes to the other extreme in a country only 24 miles wide.
More than 17 million people rejoiced in the unexpected victory for Kazakhstan, from Aktau on the bank of the Caspian Sea to Almaty in the east, a few hundred miles from the China border. Sports such as boxing and cycling normally dominate the sports pages.
“Sensational and historic”, was how Prosport, a Kazakh newspaper and website, described the national football team’s victory. It is already a momentous time for Kazakhs. Their popular president has just stepped down, prompting tears and tributes. Scotland’s trip to Kazakhstan will be remembered not only for their worst-ever defeat but also for being based in a city that changed its name during their stay. Scotland arrived in Astana and left yesterday from Nursultan – named after departing president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Yesterday was also the start of a holiday – Navruz, the Persian new year, is celebrated throughout the Muslim east. “You come here at a historic time,” said Talgat Dossanov, an IT entrepreneur based in Almaty and who studied business management at Aberdeen University between 2002 and 2006. “The president resigned, the capital’s name changed and Kazakhstan enjoyed their best-ever football result. It has been compared to a Golovkin win.”
The boxer is Kazakhstan’s greatest current sporting figure but the likes of Alexander Merkel, who set up his side’s first goal on his return to the national team after a near three-year absence, have put themselves in the limelight again.
But the man being celebrated most yesterday was Michal Bilek, pictured, the manager who seems always to be around for Scotland nadirs. He was in charge of Czech Republic on a notorious night in Prague when Craig Levein played a 4-6-0 system and Scotland fell to a grim 1-0 defeat. He has now been the architect of what many are claiming is the Scottish national team’s lowest low.
Locals believe the Scots underestimated Kazakhstan. “We are no different to the Scots,” wrote Sanjar Aktaever in Prosport. “Because of the opponent and the changes, everybody lost sight of the one important detail – how good Bilek is as a coach, inspirer and tactician.” The writer complimented him for his correct use of wing-backs while also praising young centre-half Temirlan Yerlanov, “who won absolutely everything in the air”.