There was a day not too long ago that the Uzbek owner of FC Bunyodkor in Tashkent entertained notions of turning the club into a regional powerhouse, a sort of Manchester United, Barcelona or Inter-Milan of Central Asia. The team brought in a high profile coach, began construction on a new 35,000-seat stadium and signed some past-their-prime stars in an attempt to gain instant name recognition.
That was then.
These days, Bunyodkor is in disarray. It’s still one of the top teams in Uzbekistan. But dreams of it becoming a force in international club competitions are a thing of the past.
The team’s sudden rise and fall shares the same trajectory as Zeromax, once Uzbekistan’s most powerful conglomerate. Miradil Djalalov, was listed as Zeromax’s chief executive, but Gulnara Karimova, Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s daughter, was widely believed to wield behind-the-scenes influence over all the conglomerate’s operations, including the football team. Such a view is supported by US diplomatic cables that have been publicized on the WikiLeaks website.
It was Zeromax that reportedly bankrolled Bunyodkor’s spending spree. So when the Swiss-based Zeromax evidently ran afoul of Uzbek authorities and was declared bankrupt in mid-May of 2010, things quickly came unraveled for the club. By the end of May, the big-name Brazilian coach, Luiz Filipe Scolari, was gone. In August, some of the team’s foreign players, including Brazilian star Rivaldo, also packed their bags and left Uzbekistan.
A star of the Brazilian national team that won the 2002 World Cup, and the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1999, Rivaldo joined Bunyodkor in September 2008, signing a lucrative contract for 6-million euros per year. Today, he is coming back at Bunyodkor and Zeromax, seeking 16 million euros in unpaid wages and consulting fees. He asserts that Zeromax, citing cash-flow problems, stopped paying player salaries in mid-2009. He further claims that he helped recruit young Brazilian talent to the Central Asian team, and when their paychecks dried up, he felt obliged to pay their salaries out of his own pocket.
Rivaldo, in an interview with Sportingintelligence.com on April 12, indicated that his role with the club went beyond that of a player and extended into management. He asserted he provided expertise to Bunyodkor officials on how successful European teams operated, and even became an investor in the club.
“I am sorry it has come to this as I love Uzbekistan and have many close friends there. I had great plans,” Rivaldo said. “I wanted to develop the Bunyodkor club to really put it on the football map. I wanted to improve the playing standards, build a new stadium, improve the training facilities and add a new level of professionalism to the club.”
“I was paid for the first year of my contract – but after that….nothing. I held on and even started investing my own money in the Uzbek club,” he continued. “I even ended up putting up the Brazilian players and colleagues who were there in my own home, as Zeromax wasn’t paying the hotel bills. But there is a limit on how long you can continue like that – I was desperate for the project to succeed, but the funds dried up overnight.”
In a curious side note, Rivaldo, 38, indicated that football contacts in Barcelona, where he once played, originally put him in touch with representatives of the Bunyodkor club. Gulnara Karimova was appointed Uzbek ambassador to Spain in early 2010. And in May of last year, the Spanish daily El Pais reported that Karimova had extensive dealings with officials at FC Barcelona, the perennial contender for the Spanish football league championship.