Fraught with financial uncertainty and yet led by wealthy elites, Kyrgyzstan’s football teams and tournaments provide a window into the country’s political and social struggles.
The Kyrgyz Cup, for instance, is a knockout competition separating northern and southern teams all the way to the final, mirroring the Central Asian state’s most salient political division. Moreover, the domestic game itself is beset by a wary diffidence: richer Kazakh and Uzbek clubs wait in the wings, regularly poaching emerging talent from cash-strapped local teams.
The dysfunctional six-team national league is made up of clubs with corporate identities, the owners typically dabbling in politics as well as business. One such man is Askar Salimbekov, chairman of perennial league champion FC Dordoi Dynamo, an appendage of the Dordoi franchise that runs Central Asia’s largest market. A former MP, Salimbekov also finds time to represent Kyrgyzstan at various soccer summits abroad, where he rubs shoulders with the international game’s most powerful torchbearers.
Copies of local newspaper Sport.kg – replete with photos from Salimbekov’s latest sojourn at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa – circulate in his stadium. On the front cover, Salimbekov stands proudly next to English celebrity footballer David Beckham. Inside, a two-page spread reveals more improbable snapshots: Salimbekov with retired Dutch legend Johan Cruyff; grinning beside Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich; and mingling with African fans.
The other personality dominating Kyrgyz football, Sovetbek Sakebayev, is the owner of FC Abdysh-Ata, a company that brews two of the country’s most popular beers – Nashe Pivo and Zhivoi. He also hails from the North.
Based in Kant, seven-year-old Abdysh-Ata club has thus far offered the most serious threat to Dordoi’s recent domestic dominance. Their training center, Sportkompleks Abdysh-Ata, sparkles with beer money, boasting a pristine running track and both natural and artificial playing surfaces. Sakebayev himself reputedly sponsors twenty-three different teams at professional, semi-professional, women’s and youth levels.
No matter the elite investments, or the fact that the games are free, Kyrgyz football has fallen on hard times.
“In the Soviet era, Spartak Stadium (where Dordoi plays) was full every week,” says a fan who calls himself Kanybek and claims to be an ex-professional. “Now, maybe a couple of hundred people come. It is because the standard is so much lower than it was,” Kanybek says while watching a Dordoi vs. Abdysh-Ata Kyrgyz Cup match at Spartak.
“In the days of the [Soviet] Union, there were two strong teams – FC Alai and FC Alga. FC Alai was Osh-based and FC Alga was from Bishkek. Naturally it was a big rivalry, even then,” Kanybek adds. The fortunes of both teams have ebbed since independence. The southern club, FC Alai, ended up withdrawing from this year’s league, citing political instability and financial difficulties.
FC Alga enjoyed a brief renaissance under the patronage of Bishkek’s former mayor, Nariman Tyuleev. But political turmoil this spring brought a return of financial difficulties for the team and also resulted in Tyuleev’s ouster. His replacement, Isa Omurkulov, perhaps mindful that sport wins political support, has pledged to resume investment in the club as soon as metropolitan finances allow.
At halftime, sporting an Abdysh-Ata T-shirt, club masseur Andrei Titov laments the loss of Anton Zemlinukhin, a talented striker who was sold to a team in Kazakhstan, Taraz, last winter. “He could have made a difference today. But we often lose players to the Kazakh league. The game is better funded there. Players can earn bigger salaries,” he says.
Given that Salimbekov and Sakebayev also occupy two of the top positions in the skeletal Football Federation of the Kyrgyz Republic – the body charged with regulating and investing in Kyrgyz football – it is easy to conclude that the sport’s entire fragile existence in the country is dependent on its two most generous benefactors.
“They are peas from the same pod, these two,” Pavel Luzanov, Russian Language Editor at the-afc.com, the Asian Football Confederation’s official website, told EurasiaNet.org. “Both are football fanatics and desperately competitive. Dordoi has won the last six league titles and Sakebayev would love to take the trophy back to Kant.”
Yet this time around, a third force may spoil the Bishkek club’s title parade. FC Neftchi (“The Oilers”), from Kochkor-Ata in Jalal-Abad Province is the only southern-based team to enter this year’s domestic league, and currently sit in second place, a point behind Dordoi.
According to Luzanov, Neftchi draws its financial strength from Kyrgyzstan’s limited fossil fuels sector, and have grown in strength exponentially while other teams cut back. “This year their side is full of Russian and Ukrainian imports,” he says. “They have a very realistic chance of winning both tournaments [the Kyrgyz League and Cup].”
Despite this optimism, it is impossible to avoid the impression that the Kyrgyz game is beholden to the crisis the country is suffering as a whole. Alai was the strongest of the three teams that withdrew from the league this year, leaving only six teams competing for the nation’s foremost trophy.
Fresh from his trip to South Africa, Askar Salimbekov has no doubts what is required for the domestic game to progress. “In the first instance, we need to achieve political stability, strengthen discipline in society and the economy. When we have stability and a strong economy, then we will have strong football,” he told Sport.kg on August 3.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.