Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
This week Never Mind the Bolsheviks wants to introduce you to a quintet of enigmatic brothers who reside far away in Central Asia.
They are a rather peculiar bunch of siblings, the 'Stans.
The biggest has left for Europe, leaving the other four behind, but all five remain firmly ensconced in the football wilderness, so NMTB invites you to meet the 'Stans, in an A-Z kind of way.
(That's Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and if you didn't know that, then this introduction really is for you).
A is for Astana It isn't just the English who've experienced problems in the construction of a new stadium in their capital. The ribbon on Kazakhstan's Astana Central Stadium was scheduled for cutting long before the new season began back in March, and it was somewhat ironic that work on the country's 30,000-capacity behemoth was still to be completed when Fabio Capello's boys visited the country in June. And you thought that Eastern European builders were supposed to be more efficient than Brits...
B is for Bunyodkor You've already been introduced to this Uzbekistani superclub, bossed by Big Phil Scolari (that's a bonus 'B'). They have a pretty much unblemished record this season and up front they have Rivaldo, who is about as old as Methuselah yet scoring for fun in the Oliy League – probably because the rest of the division is rubbish.
C is for CIS Cup None of the big teams really give a toss about the annual get-together for the champions of each of the former Soviet Union countries, which is perhaps why Central Asian clubs have been doing rather well in it of late. Aktobe of Kazakhstan were runners-up this year, and NMTB reckons that the aforementioned Bunyodkor are favourites this January.
D is for Dushanbe Name changes are almost endemic in Central Asia. They usually come about due to a sponsorship deal, but there may have been a different reason that Tajikistan's Dinamo Dushanbe changed from Dinamo Stalinabad.
E is for Europe When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lennart Johansson offered all of the Central Asian states the opportunity to join the UEFA party and all flatly refused. In 2002 Kazakhstan became affiliated with UEFA in an attempt to improve the standard of football in the country. It hasn't worked.
F is for Futsal Futsal is a rubbish version of football that we aren't very good at in England: we don't even limp out of its major competitions at the quarter-final stage. They're rather better at it than us in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan are the top rated 'Stan at 21st in the world.
G is for Golden Match What's the most sensible method for selecting a champion when there are two teams level at the top of the table come the end of the season? Goal difference? Nope. Goals scored? Not a chance. In Central Asia a Golden Match is staged to decide the championship.
H is for Hurshid Luftfullayev If you're ever participating in a pub quiz and are asked who was the top scorer in the Kyrgyz League last season, fear not. Hurshid Luftfullayev of Abdish-Ata is the answer. And for a bonus point, he scored an unimpressive 13 times.
I is for internationals There's a bit of rivalry between the 'Stans at everything; they even boo their brothers' competitors on the Central Asian version of X Factor. At international level Uzbekistan currently have the bragging rights as the number one 'Stan, who are the highest FIFA-ranking team at number 85 in the world.
J is for juice companies They seldom buy football clubs in England, although we hear the man from Del Monte was hours away from buying Everton in the late-90s. However, perhaps their absence is a good thing when they bestow teams stupid names like Happy Day Juice Kant (Kyrgyzstan). It's hardly a surprise that they went bust: not even the most diehard of supporters would have that tattooed on their arms.
K is for Kairat Almaty These Kazakhstanis were the most successful Central Asian side during Soviet times, having spent 26 seasons in the national leagues of the USSR football pyramid, although they went bankrupt this year. And the old ones always say wistfully that things were better under the communists...
L is for Lokomotiv Astana NMTB is staying in Kazakhstan with another old friend – the country's new super club were formed this year following a merger between Megasport Depot (seriously) and the more sensibly named FC Almaty, and were promptly whisked away by their sponsors Temir Zholy to the capital Astana. This means that, for the first time since independence, Kazakhstan's largest city is without a top-flight team.
M is for mankinis They don't wear them in Central Asia. Ever. You will probably only see one on a burning effigy of Sacha Baron Cohen somewhere in Kazakhstan.
N is for Nebtci Backanabat This Turkmenistani team have been ever-present in the top flight since independence, and won the league and cup double in 2004. Bet you didn't know that.
O is for Olympics The world's greatest sporting event hasn't yet reached Turkmenistan, nor is it likely to in the near distant future, but just in case it does the government have built the 30,000-capacity Olympic Stadium in Ashgabat just in case it does. Work is currently underway to double its capacity, so maybe they know something we don't. Ashgabat 2024, anyone?
P is President's Cup The late, great and madcap dictator, sorry president, of Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi, enacted some truly bonkers laws during his tenure, including banning all newsreaders from wearing makeup after an embarrassing mix-up that's best left uninvestigated. He did love his football, thought, bless him, and he formed the President's Cup in 1994 in attempt to lure the best clubs to the country. With the dismal prize money on offer, it's never really going to rival the Champions League, especially when it's mostly teams from Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe competing.
Q is for Qizilqum Zarafshon An A-Z is always decidedly difficult with letters like 'q', so don't complain that Qizilqum Zarafshon are nothing but a midtable Oliy League team in Uzbekistan.
R is for Regar Tadaz Tursunzoda Tajikstan's most successful team, they have won the First Division seven times since independence. Make them your second team, go on.
S is for Shatskikh Maxim Shatskikh is Uzbekistan's most famous export (well, can you name another?). He plied his trade in Ukraine with Dynamo Kyiv for years and departed this year for Lokomotiv Astana in Kazakhstan, having scored 99 times in the Perscha-Liga for the Bilo-Syni.
T is for Taskhent Pakhtakor Taskhent are an Uzkbekistani team with a tragic past. In 1979 an aeroplane carrying the team was involved in a mid-air collision, and 17 players and staff were among the 150 people who died in the terrible accident.
U is for Uzbekistan (of course) Will Uzbekistan follow its big brother Kazakhstan and leave Europe for Asia? Probably, eventually. They nearly did during the previous World Cup qualifying campaign when a match against Bahrain was ordered to be replayed in light of a refereeing error. Uzbekistan subsequently lost and threw a hissy fit, threatening to join UEFA, and with the government eager to promote the country via Bunyodkor, it could well happen sooner rather than later.
V is for Vakhsh Qurghonteppa Much like Qs in Britain (not the polite post-office variety), hardly anything begins with a 'v' in Central Asia. NMTB knows a lady called Vicky who lives in Astana, but she's nothing to do with football, so instead meet Tajikstan's Vakhsh Qurghonteppa, whom it can offer you very little information on.
W is for women They have women in Central Asia and sometimes they play football, too. Again, Uzkbekistan are the highest-ranking team in the region, at 47th in the world. Turkemenistan have a nascent women's game: Kopetdag recently won the league and a tournament in which the 13-year-old Merjen Ilbashieva impressed the crowds with her skills, and whom you can impress your friends with by namedropping down your local. Actually, perhaps you probably shouldn't have conversations with your friends about 13-year-old girls...
X is for Xorazm Urganch Never let it be said that we're just filling space with these difficult letters. There's a team called Xorazm Urganch from Uzbekistan who begin with an 'x', but they aren't very interesting.Y is for Yokary League The Turkmenistani league doesn't receive any coverage in the UK, so here's a shameless plug to promote it and convert you all. It has nine teams, one of them is called Mary, and, errrr, that's about it. Converted? Didn't think so.
Z is for Zhastyk Ak Altyn Karasuu Kyrgyzstan's, no, the world's unluckiest team. They've reached seven of the past eight Kyrgyz Cup Finals... and lost the lot. The other? They were booted out of the competition at the semi final stage following an almighty ding-dong on the pitch which resulted in them being expelled, possibly because they players had had enough of losing and wanted to watch the Cup Final on the telly that year for a change.
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