Spanish Newspaper Documents Uzbek-Spanish Soccer Deal
The head of FC Barcelona, one of the most famous football clubs in the world, has had extensive dealings with Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, according to an investigative report published by the prominent Spanish daily El Pais.
Joan Laporta Estruch, 47, has served as president of the Barcelona football club since 2003. In August of 2008, he made his first trip to Tashkent, according to the El Pais report. On that trip “he was received with the honors of a chief of state,” the report added.
“On this and on later visits to the [Central] Asian state, his host was Gulnara Karimova, the self-proclaimed ‘princess of the Uzbeks,’” the report continued.
The report describes Karimova as the “owner” of the Zeromax conglomerate, a Swiss-registered entity, “whose businesses operate in almost every economic sphere” in Uzbekistan. In addition, Zeromax, perhaps the most influential economic entity in the Central Asian nation, maintains controlling interest in the country’s most prominent football club, FC Bunyodkor.
According to the El Pais report, Laporta, who is also the managing partner of a large Barcelona law firm, signed a cooperation agreement during his August 2008 visit to Tashkent, under which Barcelona and Bunyodkor agreed to play two “friendly” matches. The two teams met in Barcelona in January of 2009 (a game that ended in a 1-1 tie). The return leg in Tashkent is still pending, the report said. The agreement has proven lucrative for Barcelona, which received 5 million euros for agreeing to play the home-and-home series with Bunyodkor, El Pais reported.
In addition, Bunyodkor reportedly paid an additional 3 million euros to Barcelona after several of the Spanish club’s top players -- including Lionel Messi, who is considered to be one of the most skilled footballers now playing, and team captain Carles Puyol – participated in football clinics organized for young Bunyodkor players, the report stated.
Barcelona “is the only foreign [football] club that has commercial ties with Karimova’s team,” the El Pais report asserted.
The article emphasized that the Uzbek government, headed by Gulnara’s father, Islam Karimov, is one of the most repressive governments in the world. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
Tashkent is “almost at the same level [as a human rights violator] as Burma or North Korea,” the El Pais report quoted Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, as saying.
The El Pais report described the 37-year-old Gulnara Karimova as “part Princess Diana, part Sarah Palin, part [James] Bond girl, part Cruella de Vil.” It also portrayed her “as the right arm of her father.” The report went on to quote an unnamed Uzbek source who asserted that Karimova’s “control of Zeromax depends totally on the support of the state apparatus.”
The report noted that Laporta and Karimova did not wish to answer questions posed by the Spanish newspaper. The newspaper also noted that the two have been seen together on multiple occasions in various locations, including Tashkent, Barcelona, Geneva and Milan. In April, according to El Pais, Karimova presented her credentials as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain to King Juan Carlos.