More Than Arshavin may be a blog on the Russian game, but at times like these, when talk of a CIS league dominates the Russian-speaking sports press and nostalgia for the former Soviet Union is yet to fully disappear, it is important to recognise that the Russian league system does not exist within its own bubble, and that its former Soviet neighbours have not played a key part in its development – after all, 20 of the 54 top flight Soviet titles were won by non-Russian sides.
One nation never to claim the all-Union prize was Kazakhstan, and indeed the world’s 9th largest country only ever managed a single representative in the old Top League. Kairat Almaty spent 24 seasons in the USSR’s top flight, a record which sees them claim 14th place in the historical tables, above a whole host of more well-known sides. A 7th place finish in 1986, three years on from the second of two First League titles, represents their greatest Soviet achievement.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union however, Kairat have not had things all their own way. The inaugural title in 1992 was followed by a decade of mediocrity and near misses broken only by a second championship in 2004, a dramatic improvement from the 7th place of the previous two years. However, before the start of the 2007 the club’s railway backers withdrew, causing a crisis which saw Kairat slide down the league and into the second tier after bankruptcy. With new backers however, the Almaty side are looking to reclaim their position as Kazakhstan’s finest.
Bizarrely enough, the revolution has carried a slightly British flavour. First former Aston Villa manager John Gregory was tempted out to Almaty in 2011, but the Englishman could only narrowly avoid relegation was quickly dismissed. More recently however, former Scotland under-21 midfielder Stuart Duff was made one of a raft of summer signings by one of Gregory’s successors, Jose Perez Serer. Whilst some players may view short-term deals in exotic location as a good way to make a quick buck at the end of their careers, the former Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee United man has taken a different approach to life in Kazakhstan. More Than Arshavin caught up the midfielder for a chat.
MTA: ‘Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, much appreciated. First of all, and perhaps the obvious question on people’s minds – what took you to Kazakhstan in the first place, how did that come about?’
SD: ‘It was my agent that brought it up actually. I’d been without a club for a while, but I’d always said to myself that I wanted to play abroad and this was the first opportunity that came up. It was in the January transfer window and I went out to Turkey for a training camp with the team, I think it was about ten days. I played a few games and they were quite keen so it went from there. Everyone was a bit shocked because of the distance, and I didn’t really know too much about Kazakhstan – probably the first thing everybody thinks of is the Borat film. It’s the complete opposite though, Almaty’s quite a cosmopolitan city.”
MTA: ‘So you signed for Kairat without ever visiting Kazakhstan, that must have been quite a risk? What were your first impressions of Almaty, did it meet your expectations?’
SD: ‘The first month or two was really difficult – obviously I didn’t know the city or the language or the guys that well so it took a bit of getting used to, but there are nice people here and everybody’s made me feel very welcome. It was a bit of a risk, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know the city and I could have found myself in a really dire place, some village with nothing go on. When I arrived, Almaty was covered in snow and not the most appealing place, what with all the dirt and grime from the cars, but once that goes the city comes alive, and like I said it’s a very cosmopolitan city. There’s about two million people staying here so there’s a lot going on and plenty to do and see, I’ve been impressed with it.’
MTA: ‘I know you’ve played briefly in Malta as well, but how much of those difficulties came down to the language barrier? Is it something you’ve overcome now, having been there almost a year?’
SD: ‘The club laid on a translator for training as we had a Kazakh coach at the time, so the hard part was trying to understand the drills, but if I let one of the other guys go in front of me it was no problem. I didn’t tend to go out in the city that often at first though, I didn’t feel comfortable not knowing where to go or how to get back, I wouldn’t have known how to order a taxi and that sort of thing.
Over the last four or five months though I’ve picked up a lot more, learnt a bit of the language and can get by now, so it just takes a bit of time and effort to settle down and get comfortable with the language. I’m hoping to maybe do a night course [in Russian] next year just to learn it fully, but I know enough to get by just now. [Russian and Kazakh] aren’t that similar, but I predominantly speak in Russian as it’s more widespread and widely understood.’
MTA: ‘In the former Soviet Union there always seems to be an issue with low attendances, and there are plenty of teams who play in front of huge empty stadiums. Is this something you’ve struggled with having been more used to British crowds?’
SD: ‘It’s quite a strange scenario – there are three or four teams with quite extensive stadiums, maybe ten or twenty thousand, and you find yourself playing in front of 2,000 people. I think it’s just one of those things, if the team’s doing well then the fans will come – if we’d have been challenging for the league or for Europe we’d have had bigger crowds. They are very passionate supporters though, there’s always a group of two or three hundred that’ll bang the drums and sing all game, they really are enthusiastic.
It’s understandable though – it’s not like Scotland where you can get in your car for an hour to a game in Dundee, some of these places are three or hours hours away by plane and that’s a big factor, the size of the country is a big drawback. But there are dedicated supporters, sometimes we only get one or two fans who travel, but we make sure we go over at the end to applaud them and show our appreciation. We know how difficult it is because of the cost and distance involved, so we really do appreciate it, even if it is a bit surreal.
MTA: ‘What about the style of play in Kazakhstan, how does it compare to what you’re used to? Are there any obvious areas the Kazakh game is lacking in?’
SD: ‘There are a lot of very fit players that can run all day, but every team has five or six technical players – you tend to find that they’re the foreign players as well. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised with the standard here, they wouldn’t look out of place in any other league, but it’s just a matter of infrastructure, which a lot of teams don’t have. Our president is in the process of building two academies with new facilities, and I think the other teams need to take a look at that and do the same. It might take a couple of years, but that’s the way forward.’
MTA: ‘Your Kairat side have got a fairly wealthy backer and there have been plenty of new arrivals in the past year or so, were you surprised at how much the team struggled this year? 10th place seems a little low for a side with Kairat’s ambitions, what is the long-term plan’
SD: ‘I was quite disappointed overall with the season that we’ve just had. The team was put together quite quickly after the new president came in, and he’s backed us to the hilt in a lot of ways – the facilities that we’re using and the hotels we’re staying in as well as a good standard of players. We did have quite a young team and probably lacked a bit of experience at times, but the main aim was to stay in the league and push on from there.
We had the capabilities easily to finish higher in the league, but it was just one of those things – we had a terrible start to the season, but towards the end of the season we played against five of the top six teams and acquitted ourselves quite well without looking out of place, and that to me shows that if we’d have had a bit more belief we could have been up there all season. I think we really need to be pushing for Europe [next season], whether that’s by finishing top of the league, coming second or third, or by winning the cup. Last year was disappointing, but I know we’ve got the capability and the infrastructure to do well. A lot of the squad has disbanded, so we’ll have a new team and that could be difficult at the start of the season, but with a new coach and the president’s backing we have to be aiming as high as we can.
MTA: ‘Finally, what does the future hold for Stuart Duff? You’ve got one more year on your contract with Kairat, is that something you’re looking to extend? Would you recommend Kazakhstan to other players, perhaps those you know back in Scotland?’
SD: ”I’d be quite keen to extend. I’ve really enjoyed it so far – I like the lifestyle, I like everything about it, and I’m actually back enjoying football again and playing with a smile on my face. It was quite hard at the beginning, but by the end of the season I felt my form coming back and I didn’t want the season to finish. I’d be really keen to stick around but it depends what the coach and bosses want. If that weren’t to work out then I’d be keen to try somewhere else, not necessarily around Kazakhstan, but in Asia and that side of the world.
I would definitely recommend it. I don’t know whether the standard has gone down [in Scotland], but people get sick of the same old teams and I’d made up my mind that I didn’t want to do that any more. I’d advise any player to get out of their comfort zone, whether it be Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, it doesn’t really matter where – it broadens your horizons and opens your eyes up to the rest of the world.
At the same time it can be very difficult, and there’s probably only a small percentage of players who could deal with it – they’d get homesick or not like the standard of football, so you do have to quite mentally strong to seal with it, but it’s definitely worth doing.
MTA: ‘Well, thanks again for talking to us Stuart, enjoy your off-season and all the best for next year.’