A bumpy pitch down a potholed lane provided inauspicious surroundings for the Kazakhstan squad's training session yesterday and their manager's reflections on their appointment with Rooney, Gerrard and company a day from now, were even less promising. In a nutshell Bernd Storck will consider anything less than one of the nation's usual five-goal World Cup hammerings to be a measure of success and he admits his squad is even less fit now than at Wembley eight months back, when the effort of keeping things level at half-time saw them concede five goals in 38 second-half minutes.
"We do well until half-time and after that no good," Storck lamented. "The players are all flat on their backs. It's unbelievable. We lost four goals in 10 minutes against Belarus." The scoreline in that game, as against England, was 5-1, justifying the manager's prognosis that his side are probably worthy of a place "in the fifth league in Germany" on current fitness levels and that "when teams play very fast against us we have big problems." Now you begin to see why, when asked about his aspirations for tomorrow's match, he says it is that "the result will not be so high as in the last two games."
The bane of his life are the managers of Kazakhstan club sides like Lokomotiv Astana and Kairat, relics of a bygone Soviet era who refuse to accept the fitness techniques which have seen him appoint the national side's first fitness coach, German-American Victor Moore, and get the players to wear heartbeat monitors. "They go back to their clubs and the training is not so good, the fitness not so good," Storck said. "I've got big trouble with three big clubs because they don't want to do what we want to do – regular testing, taking blood. They say 'With our clubs we have success, we win cups'. They train hard with no rest time. It's the old Russian system." Some players, Moore observed, have undertaken their own fitness regimes, but Storck still considers his players to be "not so fit as they were at Wembley."
The squad's penultimate pre-match training session in the shadow of his country's majestic Tien Shan mountain revealed that the men who may make hay on Saturday are Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard, given the Kazakh midfielders' propensity for watching the ball and not their man. As Storck memorably put it: "This is a big problem in the whole of the country. They look the whole time like children playing."
He is not entirely without hope, though, ahead of a game which he considers to be comfortably the biggest in the 18-year history of the independent nation. This vast country has made much of adversity and the sight of the diminutive green-booted midfielder Zambyl Kukeyev banging in a 40-yard goal which brought training to a stop suggests that the DVDs Wayne Rooney said England were watching at the Intercontinental Hotel across town ought to include some of the national football side. Lampard seemed unable to name a single Kazakh player when asked about the opposition yesterday. Storck also mentioned strapping centre forward Sergei Ostapenko, though he hardly looked fleet of foot.
The Kazakhs are more concerned about what England will bring. Storck did not get much communication from Fabio Capello at Wembley, the occasion of the German's first game in charge – "We only made small talk at Wembley. He is a little bit distant." But he knows plenty about Steven Gerrard in a central offensive midfield role which he has been sharing with Rooney. "When [Gerrard] he comes from the left as we saw in the first half against us he's not so strong and dangerous. Even when Rooney is falling down, he has the vision to kick the ball into space for [Theo] Walcott and he's waiting and waiting and when he starts he's dangerous."
That said, the young side Storck has assembled can draw on the memory of two draws against Belgium and their famous 2-1 victory over Serbia in a European Championship qualifier two years back. Now comes the biggest match in the nation's history: a 25,000 sell-out despite the price of the most expensive tickets being four times higher than usual. Though victory looks unthinkable, a night of mere respectability will live long for a manager who considers it integral to building from small foundations. "Every time we shoot at goal on Saturday is a big success for this country," Storck said.
Stepping up: How Kazakhstan & England compare
A game of two halves Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, 20 times the size of England. But with a population of 16 million, an average monthly wage of £270 and a life expectancy 15 years less than Britain's, the gulf is vast.
Sporting highs Due to money made from oil and gas fields, funds have been pumped into the state-owned cycling team Astana, signing up Lance Armstrong and 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney Olga Shishigina won gold in the 100m hurdles – Britain won one gold in women's athletics, too (Denise Lewis in the heptathlon).
Football scene With a national team formed in 1993 after gaining independence, Kazakhstan only has 45 registered clubs. Football comes fourth after ice hockey, skiing and boxing.Reuse content