Among the multiple personas adopted by Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, was #1 football fan. Accordingly, her political demise stirred speculation about whether Uzbekistan would continue to play the role of a regional football power. The early results in the post-Karimova age have not been great, but insiders say the Uzbek government remains committed to the Soviet notion of burnishing its image via sporting success.
Football is the most popular sport in Uzbekistan, which has long had Central Asia’s most formidable national team: but in a region where enthusiasm for the beautiful game is not matched by resources or skilled players, that is not saying much. Currently, Uzbekistan stands 71st out of 209 national squads ranked by FIFA, football’s world governing body. The next highest-ranked Central Asian countries are Tajikistan in 136th position and Kazakhstan in 139th.
In the late 2000s, when Karimova’s influence was at its apex, she had the reputation of being football’s principle patron inside Uzbekistan. She brokered a deal, in which top players from one of the world’s most glamorous teams, FC Barcelona, conducted clinics in Uzbekistan. And she was reportedly the behind-the-scenes catalyst for an initiative to turn Bunyodkor, the perennial top team in Uzbekistan’s domestic league, into a global football brand.
Ultimately, the Bunyodkor plan fell flat, but her involvement in the sport still raised hopes that Uzbekistan would achieve a breakthrough in international competitions, and, after many unsuccessful campaigns, finally qualify for the World Cup tournament. In 2013, the national team fell just short of that goal, losing to Jordan on penalties.
Karimova fell from grace in early 2014 and has reportedly been held under house arrest since then. Her demise had some Uzbek football fans wondering whether the national team would also fall on hard times.
The AFC Asian Cup, a FIFA-sanctioned regional tournament hosted this January by Australia, offered Uzbekistan its first real international test since Karimova’s downfall. The Uzbek squad failed to impress, bounced out of the tournament by South Korea in the quarterfinal round. Australia will play South Korea on January 31 for the Asian Cup championship.
According to Alisher Nikimbaev, a former official at the Uzbekistan Football Federation, the national team’s lackluster performance was connected to the general weakness of Uzbekistan’s domestic league. “The level of [play in] our domestic league is bringing down the performance of our national team,” Nikimbaev said. “Our [league] is not really competitive.”
Another individual with detailed knowledge of the internal workings of Uzbek football, who spoke on condition of anonymity, contended that Karimova’s role in the sport was exaggerated. “Uzbekistan always invested good money in football, even long before Gulnara, hence it will survive and continue with or without her,” the source said.
Nikimbaev agreed that Karimova appeared to take more credit than she deserved when it came to promoting Uzbek football. “The role of Gulnara in football was not so big as it was portrayed in foreign media,” he said.
The source said the government is now allocating tens of millions of dollars for the construction of new facilities and to fund youth programs. The relatively robust government spending is driven by two factors: a desire to keep Uzbek youths occupied and apolitical, and to foster a positive international image of Uzbekistan. “They [Uzbek leaders] want to promote, through sports, themselves as a progressive, modern country, as well as a regional power,” the source said.
During Gulnara’s heyday, the prevailing mood was that football success could be imported. Thus, Bunyodkor brought in a Brazilian coach and a bevy of aging, way-past-their-prime foreign stars. After that experiment failed miserably, however, there is general consensus that the best way to build a winner is with a home-grown approach, even if such a strategy takes more time and patience to bear fruit.
“Nowadays Uzbek football can only rely on youth development, which is possible thanks to the government’s investments,” said Nikimbaev, the former federation functionary.
Nikimbaev remains a believer that the Uzbek national team can reach football’s promised land, the World Cup tournament, which, ironically for Tashkent, is due to be played in Russia in 2018. “Qualifying to the next World Cup is a reachable target for us,” he said.
Emanuele Giulianelli is a freelance sports reporter based in Italy.
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