As a capital city and a namesake football club, Astana is a strikingly new concept. A planned governmental hub like Brasilia, the administrative centre for the vast nation of Kazakhstan, Astana was laid out by Kisho Kurokawa, partly responsible for the radical look of post-war Japan.
Also the national stadium for the world’s ninth largest country, the Astana Arena has witnessed the recent triumphs of its host club, champions of Kazakhstan for six consecutive years from 2014.
Kazakhstan’s decision to leave the Asian Football Confederation and join UEFA in 2002 has meant that Astana, named national capital five years before, has played host to Germany, Holland Sweden and Ireland in recent years. Plum fixtures now come to Astana rather than the former capital, Almaty.
Similarly, in beating Kairat Almaty to the title every season since 2014, FC Astana have been able to bring the likes of Benfica, Atlético Madrid and Galatasaray to the Astana Arena, playing out a draw each time in the group stage of the 2015-16 Champions League. The distance from Lisbon to Astana is more than 6,000 kilometres, flight time at least 11 hours. For Benfica, a game in New York would be closer. For fans of European teams, a midweek trip to Astana is a logistical and financial conundrum.
Siting its capital towards the border with Russia – Astana is closer to Omsk than to Almaty – this energy-rich, sparsely populated country the size of western Europe has not only taken its parliamentary seat away from an earthquake zone but moved its soccer powerbase, too.
Football was first played in Kazakhstan in Semipalatinsk, later renamed Semey, also by the border with Russia. But it was a combined team from Almaty, Sbornaya Alma-Ata, who won the first de facto national title in 1936, when it was open to teams from the Kazakh republic of the Soviet Union. Further wins were registered for Dinamo, Stroyitel, Spartak and ADK, all teams from Almaty.
In what was then Tsenilograd, and today is called Astana, a stadium had been built in 1936 for cavalry training. Later named Kazhymukan Munaitpasov after a revered and fearsome Greco-Roman wrestler, this ground in the west of town was converted to a sports stadium in 1938. It consisted of one wooden stand, a cinder running track and football pitch, used by the first club in town, Lokomotiv.
But organised football only really took off in the wake of the Virgin Lands Campaign from the late 1950s onwards. A huge initiative to encourage a young workforce to move from European Russia to the wheatfields of Kazakhstan, where 1.5 million had starved to death in 1932 and 1933, it made a new frontier out of this distant republic. Workers needed sport and workers needed recreation.
It wasn’t until 1984 that Tselinnik Tsenilograd won the Kazakh title, when it was in the third tier of the Soviet league system. But no club from Tsenilograd made the top flight, only Kairat from Almaty, who won the independent Kazakh league in 1992.
Originally formed as Dinamo in 1964, Tselinnik Tsenilograd became Tsesna Akmola in 1994 with the change of city name. Akmola became Astana (‘Capital City’ in Kazakh) in 1998. These teams were all based at the Kazhymukan Munaitpasov.
With all the investment being pumped into the new metropolis, its flagship football club upped its game. The now renamed Zhenis Astana won the title two years running, in 2000 and 2001, captained by Moscow-born Kazakh journeyman Yevgeni Lovchev. His goals in each leg of the club’s Champions League debut against Sheriff Tiraspol took the aggregate to 4-4, but the Transnistrians going through on the 3-2 scoreline at the Kazhymukan Munaitpasov.
Under Dutchman Arno Pijpers, who had achieved near miracles with the Kazakhstan national team, the club, renamed to simply ‘Astana’, won the title again in 2006.
In 2008, non-payment of transfer fees saw this original Astana demoted, then renamed (again) to Namys Astana once it was decided to create a new club in the capital: Lokomotiv Astana.
The merger of two clubs from Almaty, FC Alma-Ata and Megasport, this new entity was taking advantage of both Astana’s demise and the opening of a new stadium, the Astana Arena. To avoid any further confusion, the previous Astana (ie previous Tselinnik Tsenilograd/Zhenis Astana) became FC Astana-1964 and Lokomotiv became today’s FC Astana.
Unable to climb out of the second-flight First Division, Astana-1964 folded in 2014. The Kazhymukan Munaitpasov has mainly been used for rugby ever since.
The new FC Astana won the Kazakh Cup in 2012, a European place in 2013, then the current string of league titles.
EU and US nationals may currently travel to Kazakhstan visa-free for stays of up to 30 days.
Astana Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport is 17km (10.5 miles) south-east of the city centre.
Two city buses run from the airport to town, the Nos.10 and 12, setting off every 5-20min. Both call at the Astana Arena, ten stops from the airport, before heading to the terminus of Astana train station at the northern edge of town. Ever-busy No.10 goes through the city centre to get there.
Tickets are a flat-rate 90 tenge/€0.25, collected from staff who go round the bus once you’ve sat down. They give change, but not for big notes, so if you’re changing money at the airport, ask for smaller denominations.
Express bus No.100 (every 10-15min, 150 tenge/€0.40) also runs from the airport into town, via the stadium, in 25min rather than the 40min required for the regular services.
Scores of routes criss-cross the city. English-language local transport resource EasyWay allows you to plan your journey. Halfway to the airport, the Astana Arena is too far to walk from town – you’ll need a bus or taxi.
ECO TAXI (+7 707 555 0101) has a monopoly on services from airport to town. The fee should be 3,500 tenge/€9 but always agree a price beforehand. Many hotels also offer transfers. Around town, you’ll find street taxis everywhere, just wave one down. A journey across the city centre should be around 600 tenge/€1.50, or nearer 1,000 tenge/€2.50 if you’re crossing the river, ie to the stadium. Again, agree a price beforehand.
Hotels in Astana cater to the business community, and rates are high. On the plus side, for your money you’ll be staying in some of the wackiest- designed lodgings in any European football city.
In the complex around the Astana Arena, the Alau typifies the genre, all bizarre geometry outside, business-friendly sheen within. Booking direct through the hotel, rates start at 20,000 tenge/€50 a single, €35,000/€90 a double.
Also close to the stadium but not quite walkable, the Royal Park is a quality hotel and spa, with a pool and restaurants thrown in. Its zany exterior sits just off the main avenue to the Arena, Qabanbay Batyr.
Also just off Qabanbay Batyr but closer to town, the five-star Astana Marriott sits in the shadow of the landmark Bayterek Tower. Expect a high-end spa, pool, gym and jacuzzi. Nearby, the Rixos President probably has the best spa in the city, with a handful of international restaurants and the glitziest Irish Pub you could ever hope to find.
Still south of the river and right on the avenue for the stadium, the Hilton Garden Inn Astana keeps it gym, restaurant, restaurants and chic bar behind a contemporary exterior.
To stay in the city centre, the Ramada Plaza can offer a gym, pool and restaurant, within walking distance of a few pubs and malls.
Like the surrounding city itself, pub culture is a relatively new concept to these parts. What has sprung up veers between faux Irish ambiance and karaoke, with a very post-work vibe.
Note that the standard kick-off times for midweek European games in the West is 1am here – but late-night opening isn’t usually a problem.
Of late, beer culture has expanded beyond the standard requirement of single draught light and dark options – popular O’Hara Irish Pub, for example, offers a dozen. Expect to be paying around 800 tenge/€2 for a standard half-litre. Don’t be put off by the salty cheese strings that come with it.
O’Hara’s also has live music at weekends, and TV screens, but for broadcast football, you’d do better at a branch of local chain Golpas. There’s one right in the shadow of the Bayterek Tower at Dinmukhamed Qonayev 35, where you’ll also find the Capital Music & Pub, somewhat soulless but with a big screen for sport.
Much more bar-like, the Fair Play at Kenesary 48 near the Ramada Plaza is very much focused on the match. Its sister operation at Ibraya Altinsarina 5 is in similar vein.
For football-gawping in more comfortable surroundings, then Mojo at Amangeldi Imanov 20 is pretty chic, with a restaurant and club as part of the complex. It’s under the same hospitality team as the convivial bar/restaurant Hungry Rabbit, at Säken Seyfullin 38.
Another decent spot to watch the match is friendly pub/diner Chechil, its livelier branch at Qabanbay Batyr 2, the start of the long boulevard that leads to the stadium. Near the other Chechil outlet on Abay Avenue, Yamaika can be a lively party spot on its night, with plenty of screen action, too.
Not that there’s much football there these days, but if you’re having a look at the Soviet-era Stadion Kazhymukan Munaitpasov, then the nearby Line Brew at Kenesary 20 is the brick-interior Astana outlet of this domestic brewery. A beer garden opens in summer.