Kazakhs' oil-powered pipe dream is a mission impossible

Kazakhstan's recently fired manager explains why new money has fuelled unrealistic expectations. By Jason Burt
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The Independent Online

Coaching Kazakhstan is "like being put in charge of Derby County one year and then, without being able to buy any players, told that you have to win the Premier League the following season or lose your job". So says Arno Pijpers.

The 49-year-old Dutchman was fired from what he calls the "impossible mission" last month with a one-line email from the Kazakhstan Football Federation after two and a half largely successful years in control. "It said," Pijpers recalled from his home in Rotterdam yesterday, 'We don't need you any more'. That was it." Unsurprisingly, he is currently in dispute with his previous employers, claiming he is owed two months' back pay plus the remainder of his 18-month contract, and the matter is now in the hands of Fifa.

Until it is resolved it means he cannot take up another coaching post and, for now, Pijpers is sitting and waiting. To judge by how unrealistic the Kazakhs are in their ambition it could be a long wait. Pijpers toyed with the idea of "going down to the pub" and watching Saturday's game against England – which would have been the biggest of his career – but feels "it would be too strange to watch a game when I should be at Wembley coaching the team".

Not that Kazakhstan resemble the team he developed. Only four players remain from the Group Six defeats against Croatia and Ukraine which cost Pijpers his job with their four best, in his opinion – the goalkeeper David Loriya, captain and midfielder Nurbol Zhumaskaliev, defender Maksim Zhalmagambetov and goalscorer Dmitriy Byakov – all dropped. "Something strange has been going on," Pijpers said.

That something strange is unrealistic ambition. Kazakhstan, ranked 131st in the world, one place above Singapore, but below Hong Kong, genuinely believe they should be qualifying for the next World Cup ahead of England and Croatia. Quite where that belief has come from is easily explained: money. Because of its oil and gas fields, Kazakhstan has been growing rapidly in recent years with investment pouring in from China – a new pipeline has been built – and the United States.

With that economic development has come rampant sporting ambition – witness the cash that has been pumped into the cycling team Astana, by state-owned companies, who have signed up Lance Armstrong as well as the 2007 Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador. Kazakhstan may be the ninth-biggest country in the world – its land mass is larger than western Europe – but its population numbers just 15 million and its exposure to football is far more limited. International matches, according to Pijpers, are still a "shock" for players and spectators who have been raised on what he calls "old-fashioned" football and who still remain fairly insular. Most Kazakhstan teams, for example, played a 5-3-2 formation until recently. They are naturally defensive.

"Their experience outside their local competitions is almost zero," said Pijpers, who coached the Kazakh club side Astana as well as the national team, developing what he calls an attacking Dutch style. But that is changing quickly. Kazakh society is "moving very fast". And also becoming very competitive. Every large town or city in the country now has a football club – a new development – with local mayors and government officials financing them, which has led to some questionable funding decisions. It has meant they have all become very competitive and players' wages are rising rapidly, with Pijpers telling the story of a goalkeeper who was offered a contract with a Kazakh club which rivalled his pay with a leading Dutch team.

At the same time there is an obsession with two leagues: Russia, because, of course, of the former Soviet links, with Kazakhstan gaining independence from their neighbours in 1991, and England. "They love English football and there is a lot of interest in the players," Pijpers said. "It's the usual names – Gerrard, Rooney and David Beckham."' Unsurprisingly, when the World Cup draw was made that interest flew into overdrive. "I had told the federation that we needed time to develop the young players and they agreed," Pijpers said. "But that soon changed. They suddenly started to talk about qualification and it was then that I realised it was an impossible mission. I had to be honest. I'm professional and want to work, but I have to be realistic also. They have good players but not that good."

Pijpers, who had also performed well as coach of Estonia, was perhaps a victim of his own success. Kazakhstan fought hard in their Euro 2008 qualifying group, collecting 10 points and beating Serbia at home in their first competitive game, and drawing twice with Belgium. It made Pijpers a national hero but, following a crushing 6-0 defeat away to Russia, of all nations, last May things began to turn against him. "It was a crazy result and even Guus Hiddink, who is a friend of mine, agreed," Pijpers said. "I got a lot of stick after that."

Two defeats last month – away to Croatia and at home to Ukraine – led to his dismissal. "We lost 3-0 to Croatia and I thought it was a normal result. They played very well and I didn't think it was a disaster" Pijpers said. The federation disagreed, with the secretary general Sayan Khamitzhanov declaring: "How long must we endure it? We are ashamed of the results." The result was that Pijpers went and his biggest regret is not being able to lead his team out against England. "I'm very disappointed that I am not taking the team to Wembley. It was a dream for me. I have coached against Portugal and other good teams, but playing England at Wembley is something else. It's a dream for every coach."

He is impressed by the work of the England manager, Fabio Capello. "My scouts told me England are better organised and, although they also said that the game in Croatia was closer than the scoreline suggested, and that Croatia played well in the opening quarter, Capello is doing well and the results are good."

Nevertheless, and despite his own squad being decimated by his successor, the German Bernd Storck – who has been promoted from the Under-21s and has brought many of those players with him – Pijpers believes Kazakhstan can do well tomorrow. He picks out the midfielder Ruslan Baltiev, whom he likens to Luka Modric in stature and style, as the danger man. "The team is one that is capable of achieving a good result and by that I don't mean they are going to win or even get a draw but they can make it a result such as 2-0 to England or even 2-1," Pijpers said. "If they ask too much of the players and try and make them attack England, they will lose heavily. But they [the federation] expect so much." An impossible job? It was only England managers who used to say that.

Big Country: Kazakhstan uncovered

Country

Kazakhstan is the largest land-locked country in the world, and the ninth-biggest country overall.

Although Kazakhstan has over 20 times the land mass of England, the population of Kazakhstan is a third of the size of tomorrow's opponents.

Nine of the 14 provinces of Kazakhstan could accommodate England.

The national dish of Kazakhstan is beshbarmak, which consists of horse meat and pastry boiled in a broth, and is often mixed with noodles.

Kazakhstan hosts the world's oldest and largest operational space facility: the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The world's first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, took off, in April 1961, from Baikonur, as did the first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova – in 1963.

A popular pastime in the country is Kuuz Kuu (Catch the Girl), where a woman on horseback fends off men trying to woo her by whipping them. If the man catches her he wins the right to kiss and embrace her.

People

Alexander Vinokourov – Cyclist who was banned from last year's Tour De France after failing a drugs test. He had earlier won a stage and the time trial.

Alfina Nassyrova – Miss Kazakhstan represented her country in this year's Miss Universe.

Ilya Ilin (weightlifting) and Bakhyt Sarsekbayev (boxing) both won gold medals at this summer's Olympics, where Kazakhstan won the most medals (13) in their history.

Football

Most Capped Player: Ruslan Baltiev, 67 caps.

Top Scorer: Viktor Zubarev, 12 goals.

Despite the country's location in Asia, Kazakhstan was allowed to join Uefa in April 2002.

Kazakhstan have not scored a goal in their last seven away matches, including games against such luminaries as Armenia, Moldova and Azerbaijan.

Since joining Uefa six years ago:

It took Kazakhstan 31 matches to win a match against European opposition, a 1-0 home victory over Azerbaijan in March 2007.

Kazakhstan have won only one away match in 34 attempts, v Armenia, 1-0 in November 2007.

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