More Than Just a Soccer Team

Down the street from a noisy bazaar, floodlights pick out a green rectangle from the surrounding twilight, and Tashkent's soccer miracle comes to life again. Spectators shuffle up to their seats coated in a thick layer of dust. Cigarette smoke settles over the stands in a motionless haze. Music blares from the speakers. Fans chant the name of the home team – Bunyodkor – and sway to a drumbeat.

Bunyodkor is not just another soccer team. Until May, the team was coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the legendary coach who took the Brazilian national squad to the 2002 World Cup victory. The story of Bunyodkor is really a story of how power and money work in Central Asia's most populous state.

In 2005, a shadowy Uzbek conglomerate called Zeromax startled Uzbekistan's soccer fans by bankrolling the new team. Until its mysterious demise a couple of months ago, Zeromax had its fingers in every pie of Uzbekistan's economy, including gas, oil, cotton, gold, construction and pretty much anything else that smelled like money. Word on the street is Zeromax owed its success to close ties with Gulnara Karimova, the flamboyant daughter of Uzbekistan's dictator Islam Karimov.

At the stadium, Bunyodkor's players dressed in blue run out to the field through a red sieve in the middle of the stands. Their opponent today is Nasaf, a club from a remote desert area near the border with Afghanistan.

The audience erupts with applause. Bunyodkor's lineup includes two Brazilians and a gangly Serb. Another Brazilian—the 2002 World Cup winner Rivaldo—will sit out today's match probably because of an injury. A camera picks out his gaunt and aging face on the sidelines--at 38 he's way past his soccer prime—and beams it to a large display, much to the delight of the spectators. In 2008, Rivaldo abruptly broke off his contract with a Greek club after Bunyodkor made him "an extremely tempting contract offer" rumored to be in excess of $10 million.

Nasaf can't match this starpower, but gets an early chance with a pretty one-timer that hits Bunyodkor's crossbar. A pudgy man to my right gasps and lights another slender cigarette. A graveyard of flattened butts is growing under his seat. I feel like I'm chain-smoking with him. Bunyodkor has often dominated the Uzbek competition in a lopsided show of force. Nasaf holds on for about ten minutes until a slow, long ball somehow slips past its goaltender. A stocky Brazilian striker named Denilson scores a header minutes later. By half-time, its 2:0.

The golden boys of Bunyodkor lost Scolari in May. The storied coach left Uzbekistan six months before his contract was due to expire. He said he wanted to help his son, who'd just graduated from Tashkent International School, find a college in Portugal. But Scolari also allowed that "certain issues have arisen between me and the club." It's unclear what those issues were, but Bunyodkor's sponsor was running into some truly serious issues with the government of Uzbekistan.
Zeromax was effectively dismantled earlier this year, and its mercurial chief, rumored to be Gulnara's moneyman, was briefly detained. For the record, the president's daughter, now Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain, a singer and a jewelry designer, always denied a Zeromax connection, but no one in Uzbekistan believes her denials. One theory suggests that Zeromax got too powerful and corrupt for its own good, and crossed some powerful enemies jostling for influence within Uzbekistan. A related theory is that Zeromax simply outlived its usefulness to its political backers—and became a liability.
The boards around the Bunyodkor field still carry the names of the club's sponsors: Zeromax and a clutch of affiliated firms. But the club's future is uncertain. Construction is said to be frozen on a new Bunyodkor stadium that was supposed to seat 33,000 and cost over $100 million.

At the stadium, the second half starts, and Nasaf is steamrolled. Bunyodkor's Serbian striker scores a hat trick and celebrates by jumping up and down and then stretching out on his back. The fans love it. Two drunk middle-aged guys are up on their feet behind me, screaming for more goals. It's a dry stadium so they must have gotten tanked before the game. One of them soon loses his voice. The other descends into a jolly stream of profanities centering on the sexual orientation of the players. Two cops lead him away. Hundreds of cigarettes have been smoked, gallons of warm coke drunk, bags of sunflower seeds husked and eaten. It's 5:0 at the end of the game, and Bunyodkor marches on.