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Don't write off the Kazakhs

WITH the cheapest tickets just €2, football officials in Kazakhstan hope that low prices and the promise of a new era will tempt the locals in to see Ireland play on Friday night, as the long road to Rio kicks off with the longest trip possible in European football for a national team.

Earlier today, the Irish squad began their mammoth trek east across five time zones to prepare for Friday's game in Astana, the nation's capital since 1997.

It's not the longest trip ever made within Europe's borders by an Irish football team - when St Patrick's Athletic played in Kazakhstan in the Europa League last year they had to play in Karagandy, which lies 250km further east.

It was seen as an ordeal at the time for Brian Kerr's Ireland team to get to Tbilisi to play Georgia nine years ago, and Tbilisi is a massive 3,000km away.

That underlines the trek facing Giovanni Trapattoni and his squad this week, especially as two of his players, Robbie Keane and Darren O'Dea, have come from another continent altogether.

Once they get there, what exactly awaits the Irish squad in Astana?

Well, their national team's home stadium is not exactly a cauldron of hate, or if it is then it's not a very successful one, as Kazakhstan have lost seven of their last nine home competitive games.

It is one of the newest national team stadiums in Europe as the place only opened for business in this oil-rich country in 2009 - a shiny new 30,000 all seater venue with a retractable roof.

The problem is that the venue is rarely full. Locals do like their football - as the national team didn't have a formal friendly last month, they played a friendly game against a team made up of foreign players based in the Kazakh league, and drew a healthy crowd of 15,000.

They are hoping to get more in for Friday's game, though interest is surprisingly low as Kazakhs bask in the glow of the country's performance at the Olympics in London.

"The stadium holds 30,000 but we expect at least 15,000 and hopefully 20,000 fans for the game against Ireland," a Kazakhstan FA official told the Evening Herald today.

"Our people are big fans of football, we make sure that people can afford to buy tickets. The tickets for this game against Ireland have been on sale for two weeks and they cost between €2 and €7. It's important for our team to have a large support," he added.

Ireland's away record is decent, but our form in what was the old communist bloc is not so good.

And this Kazakhstan team seems to be a mixed bag when it comes to home matches. In the last two qualifying campaigns, for Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup, they lost every game bar two: a draw at home to Austria and a 3-0 win over Andorra.

Small potatoes really, as when the big guns came to town, they all endured the long trip but still came away with a win and a clean sheet with victories for Germany (3-0), Turkey (3-0) and England (4-0).

There is a slight cause for concern, though, that their overall home record recently is not that bad and may be improving as the Kazakhs are unbeaten in their last four home games. Granted, that run includes a win over Kyrgyzstan (196th in the world) and a 1-1 draw with Syria (147th, according to FIFA).


One concern is that as poor as their team is, Kazakhstan tend to pull off one big result at home in each campaign, like beating Serbia.

And the main worry this week is that Kazakhstan can do to Ireland what they did to Austria in the last qualifying campaign.

The Austrians came into that game feeling confident after a 4-1 win away to Azerbaijan, but were held to a 0-0 draw in front of a crowd of 11,000 in Astana.

"Kazakhstan didn't allow us to play the way we planned," Austrian manager Willi Ruttensteiner said after the final game in a poor qualifying campaign for Austria, who finished fourth in the table.

Teams have come unstuck in Kazakhstan - Serbia suffered a morale-shattering loss there in the qualifiers for Euro 2008; Poland and Portugal only came away from their games in the former home of the national team, Almaty, with wins by a one-goal margin. And one of the low points for the Belgian national side in recent years was a 2-2 draw in Kazakhstan in that same campaign.

That game was notable for the fact that one - yes, just one - Belgian fan made the trip east.

Ireland will have more than one fan at Friday's game, as some of the braver elements of the Green Army set out on the trip east on Monday, some of them stopping off in Almaty before getting to Astana via a 20-hour train ride.

At least the tickets are cheap.