Nurbulat Masanov on the Golden Age of FC Kairat (Or: Қайрат – [почти] Чемпион!)

This post , the first in a new segment on exploring the past of Kazakhstan, is a piece of writing on football by the late historian, political scientist and public intellectual Nurbulat Masanov.  He was well known in both Kazakhstan and with foreign academics (Read some tributes after his 2006 death here). Last year, where I stumbled upon a posthumously published book containing a collection of his interviews and articles: Я, Нурбулат Масанов.

In addition to discussing historical, political and social issues, Masanov was, like me, a huge sports fan. Being an Alma-Ata native, his real love was the local football club FC Kairat. FC Kairat has fallen on tough times recently, but their futsal offshoot, AFC Kairat Almaty, is one of the best in Europe (remember – Kazakhstan plays in UEFA competitions, not Asia). They have made the final four of the UEFA Futsal Cup the four of the last six years, and this past April they finally received the chance to host the final tournament. They fell, once again, in the semis to Sporting Club de Portugal before capturing third.

So in honor of Nurbulat Masanov and AFC Kairat Almaty’s success I offer this translation of his article on the glory days of Kairat. Enjoyыныздар.

In 1961 my father – a passionate and fanatical football fan – first took me to a football match of Kairat vs Dynamo Kiev, where the Almaty team were crushed by the guests 3:0. I was shocked by the giant stadium, filled to capacity with tens of thousands of spectators. That amount of people, together expressed one voice, one singular thought, and every cell of one’s body became empathetic and responsive to each successfully executed feint, save, strike, or goal, I never saw such emotion even in the gigantic communist parades for November 7th and May 1st. From that very day I have been crazy for football, and since then going to football matches has become a regular event. Growing up our entire family loved football – my father, grandfather, all the men in our close circle, almost all my classmates and later all my university coursemates.

It was a whole ritual – we prepared for each match for 2-3 days: buying tickets, discussing the makeup of the team, tactics, the trainers, the weather (if it rains we will surely win!), the form of the team, the personal lives of all the players of Kairat; as many of the players lived in the center of the city. My father and I even wrote verse about our beloved team. The whole town lived for football, as it was the only officially permitted public spectacle. When a goal was scored, the rapturous roar of the fans could be heard on Komsomolskaya, Kommunisticheskiy and even Gogol’ streets! The story of Kairat was, without exaggeration, the happiest period in the life of Alma-Ata.

For two hours before the beginning of the match the powerful flow of the fans blocked all the streets of the city center – people went by foot; the movement of other forms of transport was completely paralyzed. Every self respecting male ‘Alma-Atinets‘ had to be seen at the match! Already on the corner of Komsomol’skaya(?) and Abai you would start to hear the never ending question: “Does anyone have a ticket?”. And if someone did, then the owner was seized upon by the crowd trying to get it. After the match the gigantic swarm of fans- silenced and woeful if Kairat lost- walked home, completely blocking Abai, Satpaev, Kosmonavtov, Mechnikov and Seifullina streets, reaching Komsomol’skaya and Gogol’, gradually dissipating.

We knew all the players by sight, loved and worshiped them. Most of all we talked about our favorites- our biggest idol of all Alma-Atintsi: the goalkeeper Vladimir Lisitsin, nicknamed “Lisa”, possibly the most effective and graceful keeper of the whole USSR. And this is the time when such bison (зубры) as Yashin, Maslachenko, Kotrikadze, Ugraitskii, Belyaev, Pazinskii, Urushadze, Bannikov, Pshenichnikov, Bauzha and others were around. We kids, and not just us, but even adults, loved to discuss our beloved ‘Lisa’: forever repeating his feats and his abilities. In terms of mastery of the art of goalkeeping, in my memory, you could have compared Lisitsin, if you wish, with only the other favorites of the public: Anzor Kavazashvili from Torpedo-Moscow and some foreign keepers – the great Ladislao Mazurkiewicz – and one of the greatest keepers in the history of world football, the unforgettable Columbian Rene Higuita.

And not by accident was Lisa named the fourth keeper of the USSR in the list of 40 players for the World Cup in 1962. It was the recognition of our Kairat!

But the most beloved player of Kairat in the 60’s was indisputably Vadim Stepanov, who fans adoringly called Stepa, or simply Vadik. He was, without a doubt, the God of our city. Tall, strong, a little slow, with a walk like a waddle (which all the boys imitated), and sure in himself, the strong Stepa personified everything manly and aggressive. He was a pillar in defense, our leader and the biggest hope of the team. When a goal was needed, then the whole stands would chant: Stepa, Stepa, Stepa!” and he would go forward and score. He especially mastered taking penalties, he scored them simply on strength alone, and we were sure that if Stepa hit it straight to the keeper, then they would fly into the back of the net together with the ball. Being a central defender, Stepanov scored no fewer goals than a forward. He played like Moore, Beckenbauer, Krol, Baresi and other world class stars would later play. For more than one person it remained a mystery why Vadik was never taken to the USSR team.

From the newspaper ‘Доживем до Понедельника’, 16 February 1996: ‘Football is my Love’ (Моя Любовь – Футбол. Нурбулат Эдигеевич Масанов)


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