Picking on Someone Your Own Size

Kazakhstan, for those not in the know, is the 9th largest country in the world. Andorra ranks 196th, squeezed between Saint Lucia and some semi-country known as The Northern Mariana Islands. So it was not a surprise to see what would happen when the two countries met in their first 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifying Match in late August.

Central Stadium at Night
Central Stadium at Night

First some background information on both teams. Kazakhstan (which since 2002 competes in European competitions, not Asian) has had some good home form: beating Serbia, tying Belgium, and holding Portugal goalless for about 80 minutes in 2007.

Minuscule Andorra, on the other hand, only joined FIFA in 1996. Since that time the country has 1 win, at home against Macedonia in October 2004. That in itself is  remarkable  when you consider the country has no professional league and a a population of about 70,000.

Also in the group are England, Belarus, Croatia and the Ukraine, the latter making a visit to Almaty on September 10th.

Getcha Beeah' heeah'!
Getcha Beeah Heeah’!

In light of the recent success of the National Squad, attendance to matches is excellent and gaining in popularity in Almaty, where the home matches are played. The Football Federation is capitalizing on this, charging 1000 Tenge (about $8.33) for the cheapest seats against Andorra. This time last year tickets could be had for just 500 Tenge against Belgium. Despite the price hike and the opponents attendance was high, with the Central Stadium at maybe 2/3 of it’s 25,000 capacity. Other improvements were noticable, larger organized supporter groups, with drums and increased concessions.

I arrived early and found already in the Press Box two dark haired, Catalan-speaking Andorran journalists who had made the trek out. I mentioned the new 30,000 seat stadium being built in Astana (unfortantely I didn’t get any photos when I went up there), and he replied that the biggest stadium in Andorra holds 600. He predicted a 3 or 4 goal victory for KZ.  Two more Andorrans showed up- meaning a whopping .005% of the country’s population was in our dear Almaty!

The players were led out and the match begins. Andorra is fielding just two professional players, my Andorran friend tells me. One of whom is Marc Berhaus, the man who scored what is undoubtely the greatest goal in Andorran history (in said victory against Macedonia). The Kazakhstani press doesn’t seem to be doing much, I ponder a bit on the laziness of journalists in general, but then I realize that this match won’t exactly be front page news. The Andorrans, on the other hand, are typing furiously.

The first goal comes after about 11minutes of relentless Kazakhstani attack, and our Andorrans look deflated and resigned to the inevitable. The late crowd continues to file in, and a wave begins. One of the best parts of attending these matches is the enthusiasm of the fans, always cheering and positive regardless of the score (although I was dissappointed by the cynicism and booing  when any Andorran player went down- these guys are not Ronaldo, they’re amateurs!). As if inspired by the wave the Andorrans mount their first attack of the match, a rocket of shot forces a punch out by Kazakhstani keeper David Lorriya. The Football Gods punish this brash outburst by gifting Kazakhstan a goal on a counterattack. Again it was Ostapenko, skirting around the Andorran keeper on a one-on-one. The yellow cards pile on for Andorra, and another goal is surrendered before halftime.

The second half is more subdued, as Kazakhstan is content to hold on to its lead, and I suspect the Andorrans (and my friends in the Press Box) happy to keep things respectable. The crowd keeps up its energy, however, and around the 80th minute a man shouts in Russian, “Georgia out of Ossetia”. He was there the previous day during the U-21 match against Poland. Neither time did he get much response.

Celebrations
Celebrations

The match finishes 3-0 for the home team, and the crowd leaves satisfied. Well satisfied isn’t strong enough of a word, maybe exuberant? The celebrations continue onto the streets, with teenagers chanting “kazakhSTAN! kazakhSTAN!”, cars honking with people hanging out the windows waving flags or scarves. You would’ve thought Kazakhstan had just beaten England, not Andorra. Nevertheless, this kind of positive outburst of energy is great to see and I wish it happened more often. Maybe a friendly should be scheduled with St. Lucia?

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