THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Only formed in 2005, Bunyodkor are luring South Americans to Tashkent and taking Asian football by storm, says Marc Bennetts

After almost two decades of post-Soviet obscurity, football in Uzbekistan hit the headlines this summer when league leaders Bunyodkor mounted an audacious bid for Samuel Eto’o.

Although the move for the Barcelona forward was initially dismissed as a publicity stunt, the Cameroonian apparently took the offer of $30 million (£16m) spread over a two-year contract seriously enough to make a trip to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, for talks in mid-July. In the end, the unsettled player returned to the Nou Camp, and the Uzbek side’s ambitions to nab a world star looked to have been thwarted. However, Bunyodkor had other plans and on August 28 the club announced that they had signed the 1999 World and European Footballer of the Year, Rivaldo, from AEK Athens.

Although initial reports said that the 36-year-old had agreed a two-year contract worth $14m, the club have declared that the contract is for one year, and neither the transfer fee nor the player’s salary details has been revealed. It seems safe to assume, however, that Rivaldo is being richly rewarded for his decision to move to Uzbekistan, explaining before he left the Greek capital: “It is a very good proposal and I cannot turn it down.”

Until this August, Rivaldo’s new club went by the name of Kuruvchi, or “builder”. The team were created in 2005 by a local energy company called Neftgazmontaj to enable its construction workers to, as the official Bunyodkor website puts it, “attend games, relax, and get rid of stress at weekends”. Two consecutive promotions saw Kuruvchi earn a place in the top division and their debut campaign in the elite saw them finish as runners-up to Uzbekistan’s most famous club, Pakhtakor. As the side’s status grew, it was felt that Bunyod­kor, or “creator”, better reflected the club’s ambitions, and the name change was subsequently announced at a home game.

As well as being owned by Neftgazmontaj, Bunyodkor boast a number of other local energy firms as sponsors. During their short existence, the club have managed to build a respectable fan base, and they have a colossal financial advantage over their domestic opponents. “We are a bit like Glasgow Rangers or Celtic in Scotland,” a club official said, adding: “In a league of our own, as it were.”

The team’s riches have inevitably led to grassroots grumbling. Fans of Pakhtakor, whose entire first team were wiped out in 1979 in the Soviet version of the Munich air disaster, are particularly scathing about the rootless newcomers. “Why did Rivaldo sign for Bunyodkor? I guess he couldn’t resist the lure of home-made plov,” wrote one Pakhtakor fan on a local web forum, referring to the Uzbek national dish. “Bunyodkor might have a lot more cash, but they have no history, no traditions,” posted another.

Rivaldo arrived in Tashkent with his family on September 3 and eight days later he made his debut, scoring both the goals in a 2-0 win away to Mash’al in the Uzbek provincial town of Mubarek. Just over 6,000 supporters managed to cram into the tiny stadium to witness the 2002 World Cup winner’s first goals for Bunyodkor. (Both well placed shots from outside the penalty area, incidentally.) There were more fans on the terraces when Rivaldo makes his home debut, yet given the 16,500 capacity of Bunyodkor’s MHSK stadium, it is unlikely that the Brazilian found the occasion overwhelming.

“By signing Rivaldo we are fulfilling two tasks,” the club’s press officer said. “The first is to strengthen our side, and the second is to promote the team, to attract attention.” Rivaldo is not the only South American at the club – Bunyodkor also have another ­Brazilian, defender Luizão, and Chilean forward José Luis Villanueva. And as this issue went to press, news broke that Zico was set to sign a one-year contract as coach.

He arrived in Tashkent just in time to see Rivaldo and co storm to a 5-1 victory over Iranian club Saipa in the second leg of an Asian Champions League quarter-final. All three South Americans scored, with Villanueva hitting a hat-trick to take some of the attention away from Rivaldo, who limited himself to a penalty. The victory, which came after a 2-2 draw in Iran, took Bunyodkor through to a semi-final with Adelaide United. If Rivaldo continues as he has started, his new club are sure to receive a lot more of the attention they so badly crave. 

From WSC 261 November 2008

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