Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Sigmund Freud would’ve loved to have had the late Saparmurat Niyazov on his couch. (Not in the biblical sense, you understand).
It was specious logic that provided the basis for his creation of a pervasive personality cult of Wikipedia embellished, Kim Jong-Il-esque proportions upon assuming the Turkmenistan presidency in 1991; if only a modicum of that egotism were afforded to Niyazov’s annual football tournament...
Plucked from the smouldering cadaver of the Soviet Union, his fledgling nation's decades of Russian subjugation had left it devoid of its own identity and culture, like Hull today. So Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), as Niyazov unblushingly renamed himself, set about rectifying that.
Only, the eccentric leader and erstwhile stalwart of the Soviet apparatchik opted to forge a new state upon the persona of his not-so-virtuous self.
Niyazov financed his fiefdom’s transformation into his own personal Disneyland from a bottomless pit of cash accrued from Turkmenistan’s vast reserves of natural resources, and if there's one thing that deep-pocketed despots are good at (and let’s face it, there is only one good thing deep-pocketed despots are good at), it’s raiding the state coffers to splurge on grandiose and bombastic projects to fashion a lasting legacy with.
In Aşgabat, the corollary of the self-anointed President for Life’s vision is a capital city Lonely Planet succinctly describes as “somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang.”
Or, to keep it local, Blackpool and Slough.
Giant pyramids, innumerable golden statues of himself, climate-altering pine forests in the Karakum Desert and an 8,000m2 palace of ice where ministers were cajoled into participating in weekly auditions for Dancing on Ice – just some of Niyazov’s loopy investments, which also included the weaving of the world’s largest rug.
(Ironically, it’s only Turkmenistan of the quintet of ‘Stans who haven’t dispatched a team to Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, which suggests they haven’t quite made full use of the facilities Niyazov bequeathed them. Bit ungrateful, that).
MEET THE STANS: An A-Z of Central Asia
His face was omnipresent in Turkmenistan, which perhaps wasn't the most judicious decision to take when you have the misfortune to resemble Dom Joly.
And like all good dictators, he offered his populace a literary treat – the Ruhnama, or “Book of Soul”. That it became a Turkmen bestseller was inevitable: Ruhnama was compulsory reading for Niyazov’s downtrodden population, whose kids were spoon-fed the tripe from his five-volume treatise during their one year of schooling.
But the parents of a new generation of submissive thickos weren’t left out. They also had to swot up on his incoherent ramblings, as they constituted part of the written examination for the Turkmen driving test.
Sadly the guide to good living has been a notable omission from Richard & Judy’s Book Club and there’s not been a great demand for it on Amazon, although the Turkmen government have uploaded it to their website in a whopping 22 languages, including a version in that new alphabet Niyazov thrust upon his unwitting populace.
The weighty tome was launched in September 2001, except it wasn’t called September in Niyazov’s Turkmenistan. September was renamed Ruhnama in an ingenious publicity stunt, and the other 11 were also bestowed equally egotistic monikers; January was “Turkmenbashi” and April was his mum’s month, bless him.
Ballet was deemed superfluous and banned, as was makeup for newsreaders, gold teeth and music from car radios. Beards were off the agenda for men and, presumably, very rough women.
When he quit smoking, Niyazov ordered the masses to, at least in public, anyway.
Singers were also forbidden from lip-syncing, which would have put the brakes on Victoria Beckham’s career. Maybe we can learn something from his reign after all...
And perhaps as a second facet of his healthy living campaign, Niyazov lavished praise on the humble melon, creating a national day for the fruit in August. They have a bit of sing-song, a dance, probably eat it; errrr... they look at melons?
Maybe, but there’s a whole day put aside for melon-related activities and the kids all wear melon costumes and a great time is had by all.
It’s just one of 24 public holidays that includes two, yes, TWO, dedicated to carpets.
There’s also a “Good Neighbours Day”, which NMTB believes to be something to do with his favourite soap, although foreign journalists are about as welcome in Turkmenistan as NMTB is in Humberside, so it’s difficult to ascertain the full story.
But Niyazov definitely liked football, and at the weekend the 16th annual President’s Cup got underway amid much pomp and fanfare in the Olympic Stadium in Aşgabat.
Friday would’ve been the 70th birthday of the autocrat, who died from a heart attack in 2006.
The State Committee for Tourism and Sport bills the eight-team competition as a “prestigious club tournament”, which sounds befitting of an event from the Niyazov era, so surely the FFT (that’s the Football Federation of Turkmenistan, not FourFourTwo) have assembled a stellar cast list comprising the world’s finest teams who vie for a Champions League-trumping prize fund?
After all, now Niyazov’s no longer around to blow the state budget on grandiloquent monuments to himself, the Turkmenistan government aren’t exactly short of a bob or two, and every dictatorship loves a good showpiece dripping in self-adulation.
So who’s there? Manchester United? AC Milan? Real Madrid? Nearly.
World-domination wannabes Bunyodkor? Nope.
What about cash-strapped sides like Portsmouth, FK Moskva or Lokomotiv Astana? No way.
So who's there? Well, Okzhetpes (finished 11th in a 14-team Kazakh Premier League), they are; Nebitçi Balkanabat (runners-up in the Turkmen Ýokary Liga), they’re there; and we’ve got Altyn Asyr (Turkmenistan Cup winners); ooh, Abdish-Ata Kant (Kyrgyz League runners-up), we’ve got them too; FK Ekranas (Lithuanian A Lyga winners); Tajik champions Vakhsh Qurghonteppa; Armenia’s fifth-best Premier League side Gandzasar; and last, and probably least, a Turkish youth team – yippee!
Yep, that’s right, it’s sh*t.
As is the 100,000 New Manat jackpot, which equates to about £20,000. Stick a couple of noughts on the end of that and you might justify the “prestigious club tournament” tagline. And entice some half-decent clubs.
Maybe the government are spending the budget on pulling Turkmenistan out of Niyazov’s dystopia.
OK, as the State Committee for Tourism and Sports rightly points out, the cup has attracted 74 teams from 20 countries, except they’ve not been all that good at football, which puts the cup at something of a disadvantage really.
In its 16-year history the trophy has only left Turkmenistan three times, when it was captured by the giants of world club football that are Esteghlal of Iran, Torpedo Kutaisi from Georgia and the Moldovans Dacia Chişinău.
And it isn't even an outsized Turkmenbashi-shaped cup or anything.
Still, news is news (although you could equally apply “no news is good news” in this instance); here’s what’s been happening in Aşgabat.
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