In the end, the soccer match was a damp squib.
As had been trailed, Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov joined a team of veteran Central Asian players for the August 30 match-off in Bishkek’s main stadium against old-timers from legendary Catalan giants Barcelona.
In the 25 minutes for which he was on the field, Japarov barely saw the ball. He hung around Barcelona’s penalty box, but he got little delivery.
The packed stadium still seemed satisfied though. They were not even too bothered to see their home side get three goals put past them by the likes of Rivaldo, Juan Pablo Sorín and Javier Saviola – all household names for dedicated soccer fans.
And Japarov will have had every reason to be happy too.
The coach of the Barcelona veterans team, Albert Ferrer, himself a seasoned and much-decorated former player, stroked the president’s pride by praising his skills.
“You have the best football-playing president. You’re lucky to have him,” Ferrer said before the game.
The real business had been unfolding in the weeks and months before this big event, however.
In May, Japarov was joined by FIFA President Gianni Infantino in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new premises of the Kyrgyz Football Union in Bishkek.
“Together we will invest and develop football all over the country with investment in infrastructure, [in a] technical center, women’s football and [launching the] Football for Schools [program],” Infantino said in Bishkek. “I’m looking forward to coming back [...] to Kyrgyzstan to inaugurate many new projects for football, football academies but also [...] a beautiful new, symbolic football stadium, a national stadium, which will make this country proud.”
It was not long before that talk began to come to fruition.
At the start of August, the authorities announced that work had been completed on construction of a Barcelona franchise soccer academy in the southern city of Jalal-Abad.
Work on this project was paid for by a private company called JalGroup Asia, which will also take on the duties of recruiting coaching staff and ongoing management of the facility, officials said.
Last month’s exhibition game was intended as a capping event for this development.
As soon as news of the Barcelona tie-up broke, local media began to query who exactly was behind the whole operation.
And on August 22, independent media outlet Kloop published a report detailing how the Jalal-Abad academy was being built with investment from the sons of a close Japarov ally and head of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev.
Tai-Muras Tashiyev is a businessman and a former representative of the city council of Jalal-Bad, from where the family hails. His younger brother, 18-year-old Emirkhan Kydyrshayev, is such a soccer devotee that he is said to have trained for eight months in the ranks of Barcelona’s youth team.
Reporters further discovered that stakeholders in JalGroup Asia include Japarov’s brother-in-law – his wife’s brother.
More troubling, other investors turned out to be figures believed to be close to the exiled former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was deposed in 2010 after bloodily seeking to put down a mass revolt.
Completing the jigsaw of investors was a Russian tycoon called Nikolai Korobovsky. Kloop learned that in 2021, the businessman won the development rights for the Bel-Alma coal field, one of the largest of its kind in Kyrgyzstan. The following year, Korobovsky and his two daughters received Kyrgyz citizenship in what some have seen as a sanctions-circumventing measure of convenience.
The academy is likely a costly but also profitable operation. Working off the precedent of a similar academy in Moscow, Kloop concluded that establishing the franchise may have cost anywhere up to 400,000 euros ($434,000). Royalty fees are worth around 2-3,000 euros. To recoup costs, the academy will have to charge trainees hundreds of dollars monthly – a princely sum in Jalal-Abad.
A few days after Kloop’s report was published, Japarov granted an interview to state news agency Kabar in which he confirmed that his relatives and those of his security services chief, Tashiyev, were indeed involved in the construction of the football academy.
In the interview, the president lashed out at Kloop’s reporting, saying it was only serving to scare away investors and harm Kyrgyzstan. Instead of criticizing the initiatives of the country’s leadership, journalists should be doing more to attract famous international franchises, Japarov said, adding that he was prepared to make land available to all-comers.
“In 10-15 years, our guys will be competing for the World Cup. Are our players any worse than African players?” Japarov said. “What is so bad about sending our children to this academy and giving them a chance to break into the best football clubs in the world?”
Kloop may have incurred more than just mild irritation from Japarov and his allies.
At the end of August, it emerged that state prosecutors have filed suit to seek the closure of the outlet on some curious grounds. Prosecutors argued, among other things, in language that vaguely echoed Japarov’s sentiments, that Kloop’s reporting across the board was leading to an increase in “socio-psychological tension.” By generating "fear, anxiety, despair and panic" among the public, outlets like Kloop are causing Kyrgyz citizens to lose hope in their future, causing them to succumb to mental disorders, sexually abnormal behavior, drug addiction and suicide, prosecutors said.
Although the suit, which was filed the same day that Kloop published its report on the Jalal-Abad academy, appears odd and flakily argued, the malleability of the Kyrgyz courts is such that things are not likely to go the outlet’s way if Japarov is feeling determined and vindictive.
The grand opening of the Jalal-Abad academy took place on August 29 and was attended by Japarov, Tashiyev and a number of notable Barcelona representatives and veterans.
A day later, Japarov and Barcelona president Joan Laporta attended yet another ceremony – this time to lay a capsule symbolizing the start to work on yet another Barcelona academy, in Bishkek itself. This facility will cost around 10 billion soms ($113 million) and will be financed by investors whose identity has not yet been disclosed.
The Bishkek academy will be a super-sized version of its Jalal-Abad analog. In addition to the soccer training space, the facility will accommodate an entire school for 1,000 children, a kindergarten, a seven-story medical clinic, a museum, a gym, a swimming pool, and a cafe under the Barcelona brand. The opening is scheduled for 2026.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.