For the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, sportswashing has brought success that their supporters could have only dreamed of 10-15 years ago, when both sides were underperforming in their respective leagues. However, Sheikh Mansour wasn’t the first politician to try and cover up a questionable human rights record through sport. Sportswashing is nothing new. Adolf Hitler tried it with the 1936 Olympic Games and politicians have always tried to garner support by supposedly supporting football teams in countries like Israel, in an attempt to garner power and cover up their image.
But six years before Qatar Sports Investments bought a majority share in PSG, a new club called Neftgazmontaj-Quruvchi was being set up in Tashkent, in the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan. There were trying to replicate the success that QSI are now bringing to Paris.
Better known as the Uzbek word for builder, Kuruvchi and later on FC Bunyodkor, would be a team that in just three years would end up taking Uzbek football to heights that were unimaginable, especially for a country that has still never qualified for a single FIFA World Cup finals. In their peak, Bunyodkor had Zico as manager, links with Barcelona, Rivaldo up front for them and were genuinely becoming a powerhouse in Asian football.
This was Uzbekistan’s shot at sportswashing. In the same year that Kuruvchi were founded, there was a massacre of peaceful protestors in the city of Andijan, with Human Rights Watch found the country’s human rights to be ‘simply unacceptable’. The side was owned by Miradil Djalalov, who at the time was the chief-executive of Zeromax, Uzbekistan’s largest conglomerate. Zeromax was Uzbekistan’s largest employer and was involved in a large number of different industries from food processing to cotton production.
Zeromax were widely regarded to be controlled by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the then autocratic president of the country, Islam Karimov. Gulnara wanted to gather support and popularity for herself so she could succeed her father as President of Uzbekistan. And so, in 2005 she turned to the logical way of trying to gather support for herself, by investing in a side in the third tier of the Uzbek pyramid, the Tashkent Regional League.
Unsurprisingly, this investment bankrolled Kuruvchi and after two successive promotions, they were now in the top flight of the Uzbek system, the Uzbek Oily League. In 2007, in their first-ever season in the top flight, Kuruvchi managed to challenge for the title and just missed out, finishing second behind the most successful side in Uzbek football history, Pakhtakor Tashkent.
The following season though is what puts this on the murky football geopolitics map, because of what Gulnara Karimova tried to achieve and her ambition for a side that didn’t exist three years earlier.
The name Kuruvchi had been scrapped for the 2008 season and Neftgazmontaj-Quruvchi were now officially known as the Uzbek word for creator, Bunyodkor. There was also a badge change, which looked very similar to that of Barcelona. This was because Bunyodkor had now managed to strike a link with the Spanish giants and several Barcelona players. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol all visited Tashkent to oversee training sessions. Each player allegedly received €1 million for just flying in and doing a skills session. Bunyodkor would also play friendly matches against the side and used Barcelona’s Mini-Estadi for winter training camps.
Money was no object for Bunyodkor and they were basically playing Football Manager with the editor on. In the same season, a 27-year-old Samuel Eto’o in the peak of his career was offered $25 million to play on a short-term contract. Bunyodkor had announced on their website that the Cameroonian had signed on a six-month deal. The deal never happened but it showed the intent and seriousness that this project had.
Bunyodkor instead went and signed a 36-year-old Rivaldo, paying him the handsome fee of €10 million over a two-year contract. Zico also was announced as the manager and they were joined by fellow Brazillian Luizão, who had also signed on loan from Cruzeiro. Bunyodkor looked like they were set to become a new powerhouse in world football.
And in just their second season in the Uzbek top flight, Bunyodkor won the Uzbek double. Zico’s side ended Pakhtakor’s run of six consecutive titles and also saw them off 3-1 in the Uzbek Cup. There would also be success on the Asian stage as well with Bunyodkor reaching the Asian Champions League semi-finals, where they were beaten by Australian side Adelaide United 3-1 on aggregate.
This would start a run of four straight title wins for Bunyodkor and there would be more big names that would join the side. After Zico left to join CSKA Moscow in 2009, Luis Felipe Scolari was announced as the new head coach for the remainder of the 2009 season, just months after he had been sacked by Chelsea.
Once again Bunyodkor would dominate the league, this time winning it by 22 points. The side had also been competitive on the Asian stage once again, reaching the Asian Champions League quarter-final, where they were knocked out by the South Korean side Pohang Steelers. Bunyodkor had been set to reach the semi-finals again after taking a 3-1 lead in the first leg, but managed to lose in spectacular fashion, crushing to a 4-1 defeat in extra time in Pohang.
Work had also started that season on the new $150 million stadium for the side. The 34,000 capacity Milliy Stadium eventually opened three seasons later and also became the main venue for the Uzbek national side.
All of this was, however, was ultimately not sustainable. Scolari left the club as manager during the 2010 season after a poor showing in the Asian Champions League, Rivaldo also quit his lucrative contract in the same season and since then, Bunyodkor have only picked up one Uzbek title. The side reached the Asian Champions League semi-finals again in 2012, but that would be the last time Bunyodkor would compete in that competition.
Bunyodkor was supposed to be a way to show the world about Uzbekistan being a modern and exciting country under an autocratic regime. President Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Miriziyoyev became the man who replaced him. Although Miriziyoyev is from the same political party as Karimov (the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party), he has tried to open Uzbekistan up to the world compared to Karimov. For example, you can now travel to Uzbekistan on an E-Visa compared to the long and almost impossible process it was at times under Karimov’s regime.
This meant that Gulnara Karimova’s presidency bid was completely dead and in 2017, she was sentenced to five years of restricted freedom for crimes including money laundering, tax evasion, embezzlement and extortion.
This meant for Bunyodkor that the money had dried up. The side now hasn’t won a trophy since 2014 and the rise of Pakhtakor again has made it harder than ever for Bunyodkor to compete. The link with Barcelona has also been terminated and Juan Laporta, the Barcelona president between 2003-10 also appeared in court after the Turkish football agent Bayram Tutumlu accused him of collecting 10 million euros illegally through the link the two sides had.
As for Zermoax, they mysteriously went bankrupt in 2010 and months before the company’s closure, Djalalov, the guy who technically owned Bunyodkor, was allegedly detained for “questioning.” According to Eurasia.net, the company owed its creditors half a billion dollars in unpaid debts.
The point here is that although it might be exciting if the Saudi investment fund or a member of the Qatari royal family decide to buy your club, there’s normally something a lot more coy and sinister at play. Football clubs should never be owned by whole states because you end up with a situation like this one. Even if your new exciting owners come across as ‘having the right interests’ and passing the fit and proper persons test, it could easily end very badly. Ask fans of Málaga, whose side are currently run by administrators after a takeover by a member of the Qatari royal family went horrifically wrong.
There are definitely lessons to be learned from the Bunyodkor story and if Newcastle fans want to complain about the Saudi Investment Fund takeover being blocked, then they should be prepared for a drawn-out, tedious game of Geofootball-politics.