When the best national soccer teams around Europe arrive in Germany to compete for the Euro 2024 trophy next summer, they may encounter a surprise opponent staring them down from across the halfway line during their quest for stardom.
Kazakhstan is well-positioned to reach its first major international competition, having never participated in a World Cup or European Championships tournament previously. Besides performing much better than its three-figure 104th-place FIFA ranking—sandwiched between Kenya and New Zealand—implies, there is another fascination. It’s in Central Asia.
Mostly, at least. Kazakhstan’s extreme West sits in Europe’s extreme East, making it eligible to play in UEFA-organized matches—a pass first granted 21 years ago. Despite trailing Slovenia, Denmark, and Finland in Euro 2024 qualifying, Kazakhstan is one point off the top, with 12 points from a possible 18. Next is a trip to group favorite Denmark, whom it toppled in a remarkable 3-2 triumph in March.
“If you look at the soccer infrastructure around Asia, it is poor,” soccer analyst Yesei Zhenisuly told RFERL after that heady night in the capital, Astana, aware that making the jump to Europe has provided a welcome boost. “We can say that we have left that behind now. We should be looking ahead instead. We have made some steps, even if it is not as many as our fans would have liked.”
The team’s progress has drawn keen interest from national figures, such as the country’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and renowned middleweight boxer Gennady Golovkin—both in attendance for the latest victory at home to Northern Ireland, as The Astana Times reported earlier this month. With momentum behind it, there is a sense this could be the year Kazakhstan announces itself.
Kazakhstan’s European journey is unique. Very much an outpost, the team clocks up thousands of miles traveling from its Central Asian base to grounds around the continent, and those in Group H must do so too en route to the Astana Arena—flying much further than a far-flung trip to Moscow, which some qualification hopefuls faced during Russia’s previous membership with UEFA.
Regarding players, most carrying the charge play back home in the relatively weak Kazakhstani top division, with a smattering employed in Europe. Even then, there are few stars, and Bakhtiyor Zaynutdinov, arguably the standout name, is not a regular selection for Besiktas in the Turkish Super Lig. That national coach Magomed Adijev’s squad hails from a country whose leading club, FK Astana, is playing in Europe’s third-tier Conference League shows how well they are doing internationally.
Before kicking a ball, Kazakhstan was an unfancied pick to qualify. As it stands, in perhaps the tightest pool, the odds are slashed. Denmark can’t afford to underestimate its next opponent when they meet at Parken Stadium in October—a fixture that will test the visitor’s credentials to the max.
European Championships are no strangers to underdogs. In 2021, North Macedonia and Finland made their first-ever appearances. Four years earlier, Albania and Iceland—the latter exceeding expectations—broke onto the scene, too. On this occasion, it could well be Kazakhstan—with land as big as Western Europe itself—that does the same.