Kazakhstan has slipped behind Uzbekistan since it abandoned Asia
Imagine if Scotland, aghast at the difficulty of a World Cup qualifying group that has pitted them against Wales, Belgium, Croatia and Serbia, were to decide they should apply to take part in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) continental zone for the 2018 event. Preposterous? Perhaps — but such geographical anomalies are far from unusual.
Political considerations have seen Israel established as a Uefa member for three decades now. Having suffered expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1974, they initially competed with countries from Oceania before stumbling across their current home. Geographically, Israel lies in Asia and its neighbours, apart from Egypt, are AFC members, but memories of a boycott-ravaged and unsatisfactory 1964 Asian Cup that saw Israel, as hosts, do no more than defeat the combined might of South Korea, India and Hong Kong to claim the title are now distant.
But the risk of strife isn't the only reason for such switching. Australia's early years as a fully-fledged member of the AFC have seen them qualify with ease for the South African jamboree, lose in the final of the 2011 Asian Cup to Japan and bid successfully to host the next event in 2015. The Socceroos had tired of turkey shoots, the most infamous of which saw them defeat American Samoa 31-0 in 2002, and opted for travel to Riyadh and Seoul in search of healthier competition. Elsewhere, more informal arrangements have begun to appear — guests in the Concacaf Gold Cup have included Brazil, Colombia and even South Korea, while Mexico are now perennials at the Copa América, the house tournament of South America's governing body, Conmebol.
One of the oddest such cases in recent years is perhaps one of the least publicised. General unfamiliarity with the geography of the former Soviet Union led few to bat an eyelid when Kazakhstan applied to join Uefa in 2002. At the time, a statement from the national football federation, the KSF, stated that "our experts are deeply convinced that our soccer today needs to be part of Uefa, which in our opinion has the most developed and progressive system of soccer in the world." The country that the Daily Telegraph described as a "Silk Road backwater" clearly relished the opportunity to compete with its more westerly cousins. The application came too late for the Kazakhs to take part in the preliminaries for Euro 2004, but a berth in the qualifying tournament for Germany 2006 was duly reserved.
Kairat Alma-Ata (now Almaty) had won the Soviet First League twice and ties with Russia and other former Soviet states remained strong. Having failed to qualify for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups as an Asian member, a move to Europe made some sense: the KSF President Rakhat Aliyev felt that participation in Uefa would toughen Kazakhstan's footballing environment, leading to an increase in standards and attracting bigger crowds for marquee home fixtures — Russia, Italy, Germany and England would make for more appealing opposition than Bhutan or the Maldives — and the travelling distances required would, generally, be shorter.
But the reasoning behind the change in governing body perhaps stretches beyond football. Kazakhstan, like many countries in transition, suffered greatly after the fragmentation of the USSR in 1991. The inaugural president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has clung to power in a constitutional system that is a democracy only in name. Natural resources have proved to be the fledgling nation's saving grace. This vast land — the ninth largest in the world by area — possesses an estimated 3.2% of the world's known oil reserves and exports of the commodity rose to contribute 24% of GDP once the turmoil of market liberalisation had slowed. In a geopolitical arena that has seen oil rise in price as it has become increasingly scarce and in which wars are fought in order to secure it, the relative stability of the Astana regime has been a boon.
Nazarbayev has conducted a multifaceted foreign policy that has attempted to maintain good relations with Russia, China and the US and relations with Washington and its corporations in particular have been breezy. Skyscrapers have sprung up in the new capital Astana (Almaty having been unceremoniously jettisoned) and the rise in GDP has been striking: already at 9.8% in 2002, growth over the past decade has rivalled that in other resource-rich economies such as China and Angola. Kazakhstan clearly sees itself as part of 'the West' — being part of UEFA has been a vital part of that process.
Squeezed like an elongated egg yolk under the vast white of Kazakhstan lies its south-westerly neighbour Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks have also been ruled by one man since fragmentation, Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan has a greater population than Kazakhstan — 27.6 million as opposed to 16.6 million — and the ethnic make-up is more uniform: 80% of the population are of Uzbek descent while only 63% of Kazakhstan's population is Kazakh. Oil is also less of a factor and has importance only on a regional scale; cotton is king in Tashkent.
The economic paths have also diverged. While Nazarbayev has sought to free up markets, to encourage direct foreign investment and to welcome multinational corporations, Karimov has imposed rigid economic controls, with privatisation only really set in motion in 2007. The US has been less than impressed — although the country's anti-Islamicist stance procured some favour from Washington initially, in recent times relations have deteriorated badly and the Karimov's re-election in 2000 was described by Washington diplomats as "neither free nor fair" and offering "no true choice".
There are similarities of course. While economic growth in Kazakhstan has been more vertiginous, it had also been healthy to the south-west. Both countries suffered in the 2008 financial crisis — the Kazakh government plunged $19 billion into the economy to aid ailing banks and companies while GDP in Uzbekistan also shrunk. As the independent news website Uzmetronom reported the arrests of a selection of the country's wealthiest people and a slew of human rights abuses , the situation is little better in Kazakhstan, which ranks 122nd in the Global Corruption Index produced by Transparency International. It's true that democracy is an alien concept to both, but the differences remain stark.
Uzbekistan's decision to remain in the AFC seems symptomatic of its inward-looking political environment as Kazakhstan looks to the West: in that regard, football, and how each country has fared on the pitch, perhaps offer a metaphor for wider issues.
Kazakhstan competed in two World Cup qualifying tournaments as an Asian country, in 1998 and 2002. Results were generally good — a 2-1 victory in Baghdad and a 3-1 win at home against Iraq, one of the continent's footballing superpowers, were striking; even if the latter was marred by the subsequent allegations of atrocities committed towards the losing players by Saddam Hussain's son, Uday. With Pakistan also well-beaten, the Kazakhs finished last in a difficult final-round group containing both South Korea and Japan, but they had quickly established themselves as a team that could compete with the continent's best. Again paired with Iraq in qualifying for the Korea-Japan World Cup, a 9-1 win for the Lions of Mesopotamia over Nepal cost the Kazakhs progress on goal difference.
Uzbekistan's progress was similar: having won the football competition at the Asian Games in 1994, the Uzbeks finished level on points with Kazakhstan in that same group, although a 4-0 win in the central Asian derby in October 1997 was perhaps a sign of things to come. In the qualifying tournament for 2002, they again came up short in the second round, finishing third in their section behind China and the United Arab Emirates. Despite the big victory in the run up to France 98, the countries appeared to be of similar standing as they each entered their second decade.
But then came the Kazakh departure from the AFC and a rapid divergence. Uzbekistan's performances continued to provide encouragement. They suffered a controversial exit from the 2006 World Cup after a refereeing mistake led to their final-round qualifying clash with Bahrain being replayed. The Gulf nation won on away goals and so denied the Uzbeks a play-off against Trinidad and Tobago. Boasting a genuine international-class striker in Maksim Shatskikh, they again reached the final round in 2010 and chalked up successive quarter-final appearances in the Asian Cup. Then, in 2011, they made it to the semi-finals. Although Australia proved to be too strong, Vadim Abramov's men have reason for optimism: passage through a difficult initial group including both Japan and North Korea appears to have been virtually achieved.
The Kazakhs, meanwhile, have struggled since the move. They knew the opposition would be tougher, but few foresaw a dismal first qualifying campaign that saw them pick up only one point, from a 0-0 draw against Georgia. A 6-0 home defeat to Turkey was especially galling and the only solace came from a spirited 2-1 home defeat against Ukraine in which Ruslan Rotan's ninetieth minute winner denied the Kazakhs a draw.
Although they beat Serbia 2-1, Kazakhstan finished sixth in their eight-team qualifying group for Euro 2008 — and it might have been worse had Armenia and Azerbaijan ever got round to playing each other. The subsequent World Cup qualifying series brought just two wins over Andorra, with two 5-1 defeats at the hands of Belarus showing just how far behind other former Soviet republics they had fallen.
While it's true that overseas coaches Arno Pijpers and Bernd Storck oversaw some stiffening of resolve and that the German-based Sergei Karimov, the striker Sergei Ostapenko and the ethnic German midfielder Heinrich Schmidtgal gave the side a more cosmopolitan feel, it still takes a leap of imagination to see Kazakhstan in a World Cup finals anytime soon: their only win in recent months was in a friendly against Oman, an AFC country.
Nor has the move to Uefa been vindicated at club level. Kazakh clubs have registered barely a murmur in the Champions League or Europa League. Aktobe have reached the third qualifying round on two occasions but fallen to Israeli opposition both times, while the worst outcome came in 2007 when Astana-64 lost 10-2 on aggregate to Rosenborg. The Uzbek moneybags Bunyodkor, by contrast, have won four successive national titles and reached the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League in 2008 — an impressive achievement whatever the circumstances surrounding their employment of Rivaldo, Zico and Luiz Felipe Scolari. It's a measure of the change in fortunes that Kairat — the best Kazakh team in Soviet times — are now managed by John Gregory.
Kazakhstan's initial application to join Uefa looks desperately contrived. It's true that the country straddles the Ural river — its most westerly regions thus officially being part of Europe — and it would be feasible to take a boat across the Caspian Sea for an away game in Baku. The large ethnic Russian population also continues to loom over the national consciousness. But the majority of the population and the two dominant cities, Astana and Almaty, are east of the Urals and thus in Asia — and the incongruity of Uefa membership is impossible to ignore. Flying time from London to Almaty is close to seven hours and, if England's visit in 2009 was something of a mission, what of the Faroese or Icelandic club sides who might find themselves drawn against the current champions, Shakhter Karagandy? It was St Patrick's Athletic who had to make the trip for this season's Europa League.
With both Japan and South Korea progressing beyond the group stages of the 2010 World Cup, Asian football's stake in the global game could not be higher. The latter's defeat of Greece in their opening fixture in Port Elizabeth at the 2010 World Cup came as no surprise and Australia's arrival has raised the general standard considerably. While Asian football is not yet close to being on a par with Europe, the popularity of the game on the continent, allied with the advantages of wealth and infrastructure it has over Africa, is likely to lead to further improvement over the next few years. To be jostling with the best east of the Urals is a good place to be. Kazakhstan may enjoy the symbolism of being part of Uefa, but in football terms their switch seems a mistake.