Former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is home to flagship club Kairat and shares the hosting of national team duties with the country’s new seat of government, Astana. Almaty has also been superseded by Astana when it comes to football. Since Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR in 1991, only two titles have come Kairat’s way, the inaugural one of 1992 and another in 2004. Clubs from Aktobe, Astana and Karagandy have long outshone the opposition from Almaty. And Kairat are the only major team in Almaty – CSKA have never played in the top flight.
In terms of infrastructure, Astana’s outstanding new Arena, with its retractable roof and 30,000 capacity, also eclipses Almaty’s quaint, Soviet-era Ortalik Stadion – although both share duties when it comes to hosting the national team. Kazakhstan’s recent narrow defeat to Turkey took place at this oval bowl close to focal Republic Square.
Also known as Central, the stadium dates back to the time when Kairat were formed, as a railway club in the 1950s. Kazakhstan was never a powerful force in the Soviet game. Clubs from what was then called Alma-Ata – Dinamo, Spartak – would often top the Kazakh Soviet league but never challenge at a higher level within the USSR. In fact, little is known about them today, nor the ‘Alma-Ata Selection’ who won the inaugural Kazakh Republic League of 1936. A Kazakh Cup was also instigated shortly after World War II.
Kairat, originally known as Lokomotiv, at least managed to emerge from this footballing backwater and reach the Soviet top flight for several seasons. After an all-time best-ever finish of seventh in 1986, the ‘People’s Team’ were well placed to win Kazakhstan’s first independent championship in 1992.
Kazakhstan having first aligned itself in global football terms with Asia, its clubs missed out on UEFA competitions for this crucial first decade. Switching to Europe in 2002 – and adding huge journey times to everyone’s qualifying-stage logistic – it took Kairat four seasons before they actually won a European tie, against Kukësi of Albania in 2014.
But, following their 4-1 thrashing of Aktobe in the Kazakh Cup Final last November, Kairat at last claimed a big-name scalp in the current campaign, that of Red Star Belgrade. The club currently stand top of the Kazakh league.
With few direct flights from the major capitals of Western Europe – British Airways has just announced it is closing its service from Heathrow – Almaty, near the border with China, has always been an exotic and expensive football getaway. Aberdeen’s visit for a Europa League fixture in July 2015 meant a round trip of some 11,000km for the Dons and 65 faithful fans.
EU and US nationals may currently travel to Kazakhstan visa-free for stays of up to 30 days.
Almaty International Airport is 16km (ten miles) north-east of the city centre. City buses nos.79, 92, 86 and 106 run into town – no.92 stops by Otralik Stadion. The journey should take around 40min. Taxis are not metered in Almaty and rates from the airport vary wildly. The minimum is probably KZT2,000 (€9.50) but KZT4,000 (€19) is not uncommon. Agree a price beforehand – or agree a fee with your hotel for a pick-up. As incoming flights aren’t that frequent, you may not find a fleet of cab drivers to bargain with.
A bus ticket is a standard KZT50/€0.25 – pay the driver on board, maybe after sorting out some small change at the terminal beforehand.
City transport also includes a new metro system. Access the Soviet-style barriers by buying a plastic token (KZT80/€40) from the ticket office.
Taxi Leader (+7 727 3 550 550) can also be booked online.
With the lack of a proper tourist office, www.almaty-kazakhstan.net is as good a resource as any for hotel information.
As the Central Stadium is just that, central, close to a metro station, almost any hotel is within reasonably easy reach.
Right alongside are the Rahat Palace, a luxury five-star with pool, gym and sauna popular with visiting teams and officials, and the more functional Astana International (Baitursynov Street 113).
Most of the other high-end global chains are in town, including the shiny Ritz-Carlton.
North of the stadium, the modern Hostel Nomads serves budget travellers.
Expat-friendly pubs and bars abound.
Close to Republic Square and less than 1km from the stadium, the Dublin at Baiseitova 45 does decent food and allows you to reserve tables for TV matches.
The Shakespeare is probably the best known, while, further out, the Old English Pub at Mametovoi 76A works on a similar formula of TV football, pub grub and ales, rarer varieties found at the Old English.
Closer to town, the more music-oriented Soho Almaty Club has long been an expat magnet, with late opening hours at weekends. Bear in mind that some of the ladies in the house are on the prowl for foreign visitors.
Lesser known and just finding its feet after a revamp, the small Caledonia is tucked away at Kazybek Bi Street 85, a short walk from Zhibek Zholy metro station.