Last Friday was my first trip to the football in Astana. The Republic of Ireland were playing against Kazakhstan in the first round of the Wold Cup qualifiers.
From mid-week I began to notice green-shirted men walking up and down the main street which runs from the river through the old part of town. They were all dressed in shorts and sandals and were mainly to be seen asking confused locals for directions.
The match was being held in the new Astana Arena which sits between the Velodrome and the ice skating rink on the main road out of town towards the airport. Before the match I met up with a friend who has moved here from Kuwait. It would seem that I had done quite a good job of promoting Astana as a nice place to work and live, as a number of people have left the land of sand to come here. We wandered around to find somewhere quiet to have a catch up but it seemed we were not going to be successful as rousing choruses of “I just can’t get enough” rang around the city!
As the number of foreigners in the city is normally so low, it was refreshing to hear English being spoken all around us. By speaking to some of the fans it was clear they were impressed with the city, which most people have never heard of – though perhaps it was due to the sunny blue skies and temperatures in the mid 30s!
Kick-off was at 10pm in order for it to be shown in Ireland in the afternoon. We were a little late but as we discovered so were half the Kazakh fans (not unusual!)
Getting through the first barrier there was a cleaner picking up bottle tops on the floor. Jumping over him we rushed through the first barrier, past all the people asking if we had any spare tickets. The guy in front appeared to have no ticket so tried to squeeze through the gate with my friend but we pushed him aside and he jumped in with the man in front. Once in the stadium, the signs for seating pointed in all directions and when we asked, no one seemed to know where Section E was! We walked around and around and eventually were told to go upstairs, eventually sitting down at 10.30pm!
Although it was clear that there were lots of Irish fans in town, it was amazing to see vast areas of green in what would usually be an empty stadium. Tickets were available for a few weeks before and priced between £2 and £10, though our tickets were £4 it wasn’t obvious how they had been priced. The corner of the stadium were the ‘professional’ Kazakh fans with their drums and trumpets! They banged and sang throughout the match, very much like those at the ice hockey match who are also forced into a small corner of the stadium to support their team.
The army also had their own area and every now and then started their own small Mexican wave. As the match progressed it was becoming clear that although Kazakhstan are ranked 142nd in the world, lower than the Republic of Ireland at 26, they were certainly the better side on the night and after the Kazakh goal we thought it was all over. So we decided to leave a few minutes earlier to escape the inevitable crowds of fans, which had made it such a nightmare in August leaving Wembley when we had gone to London to watch the women’s football Olympic final.
Naturally, just as we were leaving the stadium we heard a huge cheer. Ireland had scored. Not so worried we got in the taxi and headed off for a night cap only to discover that Ireland then scored again in the final minute – giving a final score of 2-1 . We bumped into the Irish fans later on and they were very gracious, knowing full well that it was the luck of the Irish, rather than good football skills, which had helped them win!