Andy Mitten column: Following Manchester United 5,000km from home – the fans who went to Astana
Astana, the world’s second coldest capital city, last Thursday afternoon.
The Hilton hotel is packed with Manchester United fans, faces young and old who found appeal in United playing in a new country. It didn’t matter that the Europa League game meant little, and would feature United’s youngest ever side. Going to football is not only about the game; it's about community and unity exists among fans than with players.
Each does it their own way. From the fans who change their location on Tinder in order to meet curious locals and exchange cultural tips, to the beer monsters who walked across frozen fields in search of a basement bar selling pints for 65p, United’s following is a broad church and many of its different facets came together in Astana. There were former hooligans, retirees, young lads and older women.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan was like Dubai with snow, all garish skyscrapers and an indoor arena which took the edge off the temperature during the game, taking it up from minus to plus 15. Locals were friendly and curious. Borat’s interpretation of Kazakhstan wasn’t altogether accurate with its Museum of Intolerance, shops selling gypsy tears, men suspending car batteries from their testicles or receiving a mouth party from goats. There wasn’t a nightclub called ‘Superfuck’ nor a Great Statue of Melvin the Redeemer – but there were space rockets on the frozen highway from the airport and a shopping centre that looked like a wigwam.
Hundreds converged on the hotel to pick up their match tickets. Collecting them up in person means that you have proved you’ve made the trip and rewarded with credit for such endeavour. In the past, some would apply for the tickets and have no intention of making the trip. This time, plenty headed east to Astana, which is as close to Hong Kong as it is to Manchester. Outside, snow had been pushed aside so that cars could get to reception. Diesel from exhausts billowed into the air.
A man in a Stone Island jacket approached us asking if there was a copy of the United We Stand fanzine for sale.
“I’m from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Republic, a former Soviet country,” said Edil. “It was a long trip here, more than 20 hours. Bishket is in the mountains but we took a taxi to the border and then a train. That took 15 hours.
"United is one of the biggest clubs in Kyrgyzstan, maybe smaller than Barcelona and Real Madrid. We also have a lot of plastic fans of Man City right now. In recent years United is not so successful, but it helped to rid us of plastic fans. Our fan base is not big as its used to be before. Currently we are gathering about four or five people in our local.”
“My father used to support United, because of [Andrei] Kanchelskis. He is a die-hard Dynamo Kiev supporter, so when Andrei moved to the English Premier League, he started to watch United and support them too. I was watching those games with him. But we had trouble watching the games, because we had only one TV channel which showed one game per week (not live). So we’d always hope it was United.”
Edil had another reason for his allegiance. “Manchester music. I’m 35. Nineties era bands. Cool Britannia time. My favourites are Oasis and the [Stone] Roses. When I found out Ian Brown was United that was definitely my team. We had a local cable TV channel and in the evenings they used to play their only VHS tape with foreign music. They showed Oasis’s ‘Don't Look Back in Anger’ video. I fell in love with that song. I tried to find their records, but nobody knew them here. Luckily I met one guy from Estonia. He start to supply me with records through the post. Internet didn’t exist here at that time or maybe it existed, but only rich people had it.”
Ed has never been to Old Trafford.
“I have friends in the UK who invited me. But we have huge visa issues because the UK and the US are among countries with highest visa rejections for us. And it's quite expensive, about $250 USD – you don’t get that money back if you are rejected. A Schengen visa (for most of Europe) costs about €60 – and I have travelled around Europe and never been rejected for a visa. I will try again for a UK visa in March.”
Ivan was standing next to him.
“I was born in Sochi, Russia and moved to Kiev when I was six,” he said. “I learned English on my own through United, watching games. We have 250 fans watching games in Bestia, a pub named after George Best. We used to share the pub with Liverpool and Arsenal fans, but we’ve kicked them out.”
On a nearby table sit five Dublin reds. They live in different parts of the Irish capital and seldom see each other in their home city, but they all have season tickets at Old Trafford which is where they do most of their socialising.
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United’s following in Kazakhstan was incredible.
The club putting free flights on helped, but only 150 fans there had travelled on that chartered plane, which left Manchester at 10.30pm on Wednesday for the Thursday night game and left Astana at 3am on Friday morning for the journey back.
The rest made their own way, usually via a European airport, though my connection back to Europe was through Dubai. There were several fans on the plane probably wondering how Astana was ever classed as Europe in the first place. I met fans who’d taken more than a week and visited several of the other -Stans first. In Tajikistan, they needed a government-approved guide at all times, but encountered no problems.
Astana was not easy to reach. It was expensive with no direct flights from Manchester. When I wrote a preview, I included a provisional estimate of 300 away fans. That was based on previous away followings in Russia – where the travelling support has been as low as 150 – and anecdotal evidence of who was going. The true figure was far higher: 950 United fans were at the match.
Real Madrid take 100 fans to away games in Spain, Barcelona too. Those two are would be classed as the other biggest sides in the world.
Manchester City took 114 to a Champions League game in Ukraine last month. I know several of them and they are very good City supporters who I will not be speaking to for a day or two after Saturday’s derby. Pep Guardiola wrote to each of those who made the 2,600 kilometre journey each way. Astana is 4,800km each way from Manchester. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t have time to write to all those who travelled there.
Liverpool would have likely taken 15,000 and Jurgen Klopp would have given each a piggyback to the stadium because no other club is quite as special, quite so magical, quite so superior to every other on the planet. It really does mean more – and I’m absolutely not vexed because Liverpool have 22 more points than United right now.
United have to focus on themselves. I spoke to around 40 fans in Astana. They’re not delighted with this season, they see issues and problems ahead. None wanted another change of manager. That may alter, but that’s how it was in Astana, the furthest, coldest game that United have ever played in Europe. They played it with their youngest ever team too which started well but, like the more senior players, struggle to hold onto the lead in games. That was a small blot on an otherwise hugely enjoyable trip into unfamiliar territory for those whose spirit of adventure took them there.