Doesn’t that badge to the right look familiar? That shape. . .Yes, is that the badge of Barcelona or Bunyodkor?
It of course belongs to the latter, Uzbeki champions Bunyodkor, who obviously modelled their badge after the Spanish giants. And the connections do not end there.
As reported in a brilliant article in today’s Observer by Kevin O’Flynn, Bunyodkor were the team behind last summer’s audacious attempt to woo Eto’o by offering him $25m to play for a couple of months and who ended up with former Barca-star Rivaldo instead.
Beyond these surface dealings, the connections between this murkily financed new Super Club in Uzbekistan and Barcelona appear to be substantial, and cast a shadow on Barcelona’s global reputation for unusual integrity.
As O’Flynn explains,
Four years ago Bunyodkor did not exist. They won promotion from the amateur second division at the first attempt, finished runners-up in cup and league next time out, and in their third season won the double, with a run to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League to boot. They have a former World Cup winner in the team, alongside the Asian footballer of the year. Now they are getting serious.
Bunyodkor are building a new $150m stadium, despite the fact that their current 15,000-capacity home, built in a few months, is less than a year old. A friendly against Barcelona, whose president, Joan Laporta, flew in to lay the first brick last August, will mark the official opening of their new home this summer.
Barcelona have a formal “cooperation contract” with Bunyodkor, and that friendly in Uzbekistan is apparently going to be worth $5M to the Spanish club.
Yet disturbingly, it seems that that Bunyodkor’s purpose in life is to be the PR vehicle for dictator Ismail Karimov’s daughter Gulnara and her serious political ambitions to succeed her father, who has ruled Uzbekistan for over two decades with a bloody fist. The money Barcelona are taking has an ugly origin.
Given the well-known evidence of human rights abuse in Uzbekistan under Karimov (a UN visit in 2002 concluded torture was “systemic”), it seems a little unwise that a team so closely linked to Unicef such as Barcelona would also want to be connected to Bunyodkor.
As Britain’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray told O’Flynn, “It would be like linking up with Adolf Hitler to promote a Berlin team in the 1930s – it really is astonishing even in the money-mad world of football to be quite that blind to morality.”
Further digging reveals even closer connections between Bunyodkor and Barcelona. It has been reported that Gulnara Karimova’s company Zeromax (owners of Bunyodkor) are in talks to purchase Mallorca FC, with Barcelona’s President “an intermediary in these talks.”
You might be surprised that we haven’t yet had a mention of the best known Uzbeki powerbroker in football, the obese oligrach Alisher Usmanov (“thug, criminal, racketeer, heroin trafficker and alleged rapist”) who once threatened to sue this blog and is still strengthening his takeover attempt at Arsenal through Red and White holdings. Rye concludes (apparently based on a question asked at an art opening) that Usmanov is not behind the club, and does not know who his — unlike everybody else.
Of course, Usmanov was being characteristically disingenuous, given his known closeness to the Karimovs. It was Usmanov and Gulnara Karimova who, according to Murray in his book Murder In Samarkland, negotiated Uzbekistan’s historically huge oil and gas development contract, awarded in 2005 to Usmanov’s Russian company Gazprom and which tilted the country away from the U.S. and back to Russia and Usmanov’s friend Vladimir Putin. The deal was sealed by a bribe to Gulnara worth at least $88M to her, the book explains.
Karimova’s company Zeromax and Usmanov’s trading in commodities have also been linked since then. And Usmanov, according to Murray, is the preferred alternate candidate to succeed Karimov if his daughter does not win enough approval. One would be very surprised if his finger was not also in Bunyodkor’s pie or at least aware of its backers.
Gulnara is no innocent in the regime’s repression, as Murray reaffirmed again last year: “The cruel and rapacious Karimov family strengthen still further their grip on Uzbekistan’s command economy, and continue to siphon off the money of their people. Karimov’s daughter. Gulnara, is the family’s principal bagman.”
The backing of Bunyodkor by this despicable regime is blatant enough that Barcelona, a member-owned social club hailed in 2006 by investigative journalist David Conn as “embodying a more inspirational identity for a football club than being a private company owned by businessmen or an oligarch’s toy” should be ashamed of themselves.
Unicef’s association with Barcelona, who gave up space on their shirt to promote the charity, is based on this reputation and they are thus also tarnished when Barcelona parade for cash in Uzbekistan at a stadium built at the behest of a bloody regime’s leaders.
In a bizarre continuation of this murky simulacrum, Bunyodkur’s slogan on their English website is “Bunyodkur plays for the sake of FANS”. Just like Barcelona, right?
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