In the first half of a month which has seen Real Madrid twice break the football record for player transfer fees paid, the news that World cup winning Brazilian coach Filipe Scolari had recently signed an 18 month contract with the Uzbek champions Bunyodkor barely registered as a murmur on the global game’s seismograph. Buried under screeds of newsprint devoted to the Madridistas capture of Kaka ($94 million) and Cristiano Ronaldo ($131 million), one of soccer’s strangest side notes almost passed unnoticed.
True enough, fans of the sport have become accustomed to seeing big name players and coaches in the twilight of their careers, packing their bags and heading east for one last, massive pay check, usually at the expense of wealthy club owners in oil rich countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Yet Uzbekistan is no OPEC blessed tax haven. While the Gulf states teem with wealthy entrepreneurs desperate to turn both domestic and foreign based football outfits into personal toys, the growth of private commerce in Uzbekistan has been tempered by a regime still wedded to Soviet-style command economics. The climate for private commerce there is lousy, the most profitable sectors of the economy, cotton and gas, are the indisputable domain of the state.
What further jars about Scolari’s switch is the near total lack of football activity in and around Uzbekistan. In a cash flush league in the Middle East, he would have at least found no end of semi-retired has-beens, an ex-pat community with whom he could have reminisced about golden evenings and trophies won; fragments from another time where games actually mattered. He could have done this and raked in sickly sums of petrodollars while guiding some none-descript team to a largely meaningless title. He could have even got another job in Europe, in Italy or Portugal for one last crack at the Champions League to add the finishing touches to an impressive CV. There were offers, he admitted. Yet ‘Big Phil’ preferred to choose Bunyodkor and Tashkent, 8,500 miles from his native Brazil, at the heart of a region known better for nomadic horse sports than for football. A paddle in the Bermuda triangle may have seemed a less convincing disappearing act by the coach Chelsea sacked in early February 2009, but images can apparently be deceiving.
“Uzbek football is on an upswing right now.“ Scolari opined at a press conference on June 9th, possibly while biting his lip and straining to keep a straight face. “I know I am at the right place at the right time.” That statement may still prove to be correct. Scolari joins Bunyodkor at arguably the most glorious point in their four year history as they seek to defend their Uzbek league title and better last years semi-final placing in the Asian Champions league. Moreover, his attempts to acclimatize will be aided by the presence of four other Brazilians among the playing staff, who have presumably already picked up basic Uzbek and acquired a taste for the local rice and meat based delicacy, plov. One of these Brazilians is Rivaldo, a key member of the team Scolari won the World Cup with in 2002. Two of the other three are in their early twenties with promising futures in the game, bucking the trend of the veteran’s march East. All of them, like Scolari, are on very lucrative, fairly short term contracts. Smell a rat?
Whilst a glance at the members of the Bunyodkor executive board sheds little light on the club’s sudden and dramatic bid for superstardom, a look at the clubs parent company, Zeromax, reveals more. Zeromax is a Swiss registered company with repeatedly alleged links to Gulnara Karmimova, daughter of one Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s 71 year old President for life. The Karimov clan have held Uzbekistan in their brutal grip since before the country’s independence in 1992, and act as the main point of reference in a regime which boasts one of the worst human rights records the world over. Sources in the Russian and Uzbek media have claimed that Gulnara, 37 this year, is both Zeromax and Bundyokor’s de-facto owner. And the plot thickens. While the top half of Bundyokor’s badge mirrors the light blue in Uzbekistan’s national flag, its shape and bottom half are positively Barcelona-esque, reflecting a growing number of perplexing links between this star studded para-statal and the Catalan club. Last summer Bundyokor were offered a loan option on Samuel Eto’o, Barca’s Cameroonian striker. Despite the Uzbeks putting a mouth watering $25,000,000 three month contract on the table, Eto’o refused the offer, albeit after a two day consideration period he described as “dizzying”. This summer Barcelona will play a friendly in Tashkent to open Bundyokor’s new stadium, and receive a rumoured $8 million for the pleasure of doing so – their President Joan Laporta will have his own plaque on the side of the building.
With such powerful backers and connections off the pitch, Bundyokor’s progress on it should be assured. Youtube highlights of the side feature Rivaldo and chums passing their way around teams that appear to be playing the sport for the first time, finishing intricate moves with flourish and panache. The club have yet to drop a point in their first ten league games, have conceded just 3 goals and scored 25. Their tenth game was in Andijan, a religiously conservative settlement in the heart of the Fergana Valley, that provided the stage for a horrendous massacre in 2005 as government troops mowed down scores of protesters in the town centre. Andijan FC lost the fixture by 2 goals to 1. If it’s really the case that the forces behind Bunyodkor and the forces behind the massacre are one and the same, winning the game would doubtless have been a very bad idea.