Sunday, April 21, 2013
The bursting of the Bunyodkor bubble
It was such a rise from nowhere that the security guard at FC Bunyodkor, with his workable English, was roped into answering the phones in the summer of 2008. "Samuel Eto'o?" he told all international media who called Uzbekistan trying to find out what was going on. "Yes, he is here." That was as much as he knew but that is all that anyone needed to claim that sources at the club had confirmed the presence of the Cameroon superstar.
Not that anyone believed it. Even if the Bunyodkor chairman had written it across the club's home page in his own blood, there still would have been doubts. It was only when pictures of the Barcelona star, bedecked in garlands, at the club were released that some started to think that it may not be a complete fabrication. And when reports of the central Asian team's new found-wealth started to circulate, the penny dropped. Sudden and massive investment in a club from outsiders with previous little interest in football - this was something that many in Europe could relate to.
Uzbekistan had made little impact on football over the decades - understandable if you spend most of the 20th century as one of 15 republics in the Soviet Union - and the country's finest achievement as an independent nation of winning gold at the 1994 Asian Games was never going to get heads turning eastward. That changed overnight. Perhaps few outside Asia knew where Uzbekistan was, perhaps not many could name the capital Tashkent, but millions around the world knew Bunyodkor.
Eto'o was offered $25 million to play for just a few months - a dizzying amount, he said, before turning it down. There were rumours of similar offers made to Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol as Barcelona visited the club - with which they were establishing close relations - to play a friendly. But others were happy to say yes. Rivaldo signed in 2008 and later that year persuaded Zico to become the boss. In June 2009 came the big one as Luiz Felipe Scolari, reportedly paid more than any other coach in the world at $18 million a year, arrived in the double-landlocked country to declare that Uzbekistan football was ready to break out of Central Asia.
It was only five years ago but it was a different time. Recently, the world has seen famous players heading much farther eastwards than Dubai, Damman or Doha. There is Del Piero in Sydney, while Drogba and Anelka have just recently departed Shanghai. If Bunyodkor had happened now, it would be seen as another example of Asia's rise, another part of the neighbourhood enjoying new found riches. Then it was seen as an anomaly especially for a club that had only been in existence for three years.
Chelsea have been accused of not having any history prior to the investment from Roman Abramovich, a harsh view as the club did win the league title in 1955, fifty years after they came into existence. If fans of Pahktakor, the long-standing Uzbek powerhouse, accused Bunyodkor of something similar - tempting when they saw their best players head across Tashkent to join the new boys in 2009 - they would have much more of a point.
The club was formed in 2005 and was called Neftgazmontaj-Kuruvchi. Neftegazmontaj was a subsidiary of Zeromax, a major Uzbek company involved in oil, gas, agriculture, mining, textiles and more besides. It was officially run by Miradil Djalalov but was thought to be controlled behind the scenes by Gulnara Karimova, the glamorous eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's long-serving and authoritarian president Islam Karimov.
Whether it was a personal vanity project, a play for political power or just a simple bid for global exposure, big money brought big expectations. The pressure was not to win the league (that was already a given. In 2008, a first title was delivered by a margin of five points, it 2009, the gap was 22 as Bunyodkor dropped just four points from 30 games), it was about Asia and the world.
In 2008, Bunyodkor reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, only to lose, a little surprisingly, to Adelaide United. Still, the thinking went, the experience would serve the team well for a renewed assault in 2009 under Scolari. The Brazilian was given an 18-month contract in June, one that conveniently ended just after the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. That was where the club wanted to be - playing the likes of Barcelona, not in a friendly but in a genuine tournament.
It was all going swimmingly in the 2009 Asian Champions League but then a meeting with Pohang Steelers in the quarter-finals put paid to that. It may have been a thrilling clash but the Koreans were a class above, leading Scolari to sign two of their best players in preparation for the 2010 challenge, his first full season in charge.
That never really came to pass. Zeromax was told by Uzbekistan courts to cease operations in the country in early 2010 and was declared bankrupt in May with debts of $500 million. Djalalov was said to have fled the country while the president's daughter was appointed ambassador to Spain. Some think that the father agreed to take down his daughter a few notches and get her out of the way at the behest of allies disturbed at her influence and a perceived possibility of her succeeding the old man when he eventually departs. If the Bunyodkor project was about her building power and popularity, it failed. Wikileaks claimed she was the most-hated person in the country.
No longer can the big stars be seen in the club's stadium - a beautiful new one was perhaps the only project started by Zeromax that was seen through to the end - instead they were in action in the courts. Rivaldo was said to have been owed $14 million and later in 2010 he returned to try and recover his losses, saying that the club had stopped paying salaries in mid-2009. "I was paid for the first year of my contract - but after that... nothing," he told Sporting Intelligence. "I held on and even started investing my own money in the Uzbek club. I even ended up putting up the Brazilian players and colleagues who were there in my own home, as Zeromax wasn't paying the hotel bills... I was desperate for the project to succeed, but the funds dried up overnight."
Bunyodkor are still around and stayed afloat thanks to the investment and sponsorship of Uztransgaz, a company that transports natural gas. The club is on a stable financial footing. The glamour and the stardust has gone along with the former World Cup winners. Serbian and Ukrainian journeymen are more common these days, with gradual development the new ethos.
Triumph in Asia is still a possibility but Bunyokdor are no longer one of the big boys, just another hopeful that can challenge if the timing, draw and conditions are right. The shortcut to global fame went wrong but that does not mean there is no future for the club with a short but colourful history.