I can’t pretend that the Lonely Planet guide to ‘The World’ can elaborate the cultural complexities of Tashkent, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe or Ashgabat; the former USSR’s monuments to redemption and reflection. It does at least offer some distraction from the reportage of Kremlin meddling, though.
Exposure like this does little to harm the gradually shifting global understanding of the quintet of Central Asian states. LP promote none of the aforementioned capital cities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan as foremost tourist destinations – although they do admit that the overall picture is undeveloped.
Architectural, equine and volcanic parlance suffices for the average tour guide. It takes a brave soul to wade unguarded into the region, and I’d imagine that, as little sympathy as Jarvis Cocker spared them in Sheffield, tourists seeking comparisons with the old USSR here are amongst the most unwelcome on earth.
Dissolution of the fifteen Soviet republics is seldom credited much to activism in any of the five most economically burdensome of Moscow’s frontiers. There was no scale of dissent like the Baltic linking of arms, no ethnic conflict as required between the divided diasporas of Armenia and Azerbaijan, few demonstrations like those in Tbilisi, Minsk and Kyiv, and no real cause for independence, some argue. The cities of the former Silk Road were revived by central investment, and isolated rural communities were treated with equal indifference as they had been by Persian, Chinese and Russian empires before. Few were sufficiently educated to be aware of the ecological repercussions of Moscow’s profiteering from Kazakh coal, Tajik aluminium, Kirghiz textiles and the oil and cotton industries of the Uzbeks and Turkmens.
As the abundancies of oil fields had always laid underfoot, sporting excellence was not superfluous before Russification. If you can imagine the scarcity of leisure tourism there today, consider the mighty horses and dromedaries of the region carrying a spare pig’s bladder on long-haul merchant ventures through to China. British gentlemen were bereft of connections in the inaccessible post-Ural regions, and soccer hardly migrated by alternative means. Gradually, some culture did reach the outposts. A Kazakh national association was established in 1914, and soon the republics consumed by the nascent USSR submerged themselves into imperial expectations. Football, in the harsh reality of civil war and famine, did not take off immediately. Suspension continued until the Union’s second coming, the 1950s.
Inevitably, the purpose of the Cold War-era club game was divergent from the only competition of comparable geographical scale at the time, the European Cup. Until the 1965-66 season, no Soviet side had entered a UEFA competition, and after 1960 expansion added Estonia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Soviet Top League had already spanned twelve different republics. It comprised the Union, and reaffirmed centralist superiority. The threshold of a power shift appeared in the early sixties, as Dynamo Kyiv became Top League champions, and followed Shakhtar Stalino (now Donetsk) as Soviet Cup holders. Eduard Streltsov’s Torpedo Moscow regained the cup in the 1968 final, but it was their opponents’ run that commanded interest.
A Uzbek outfit with little in the way of luxury, Pakhtakor Tashkent are most famously recalled as the victims of a 1979 air disaster, in which seventeen members of their squad died, including the now-iconic Korean-Uzbek luminary, Mikhail An. Even if it meant the demise of their own success, after riots broke out in 1969 in protest of Russian migration to the city, their achievements precipitated a string of anti-Stalinist victories in the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s; the cities of Lviv, Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk), Yerevan, Tbilisi, and then into the 1980s Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Rostov, unfashionable and industrial, surging to the fore.
The clean-cut goalscoring icon behind the Tashkent club’s rise was Gennady Krasnitsky. Having joined as an 18-year-old in 1958, two years after the formation of a team to fill the city’s new sporting amphitheatre, Krasnitsky never left. The tonic for an increasingly divided nation, his form as a young player gained recognition by a Soviet side that just emerged victorious from the 1960 European Championships. and famously on a 1963 tour of Soviet domestic stars scored twice against the reigning world champions Brazil. Rumours of alcoholism were rife, and his professional career only lasted a decade, before he made the natural evolution to become a coach at Pakhtakor. In 1988, Krasnitsky, one of the most ubiquitously popular players of the mid-Soviet era, committed suicide, aged 47, in the remote Tajik city of Qurghonteppa. Accounts read of a gifted working-class man with a thirst for education, losing his father in adolescence to the Great Patriotic War, a victim of the pressures applied to all sportspeople, and particularly those of his ilk after Streltsov’s imprisonment in 1958. Krasnitsky was named Uzbek player of the century in 2000, when he would have only been 60.
There will be no usurpers of Krasnitsky’s fame in Uzbek football, but attempts are being made to advance the national team, after their narrow margin of failure in qualifying for this year’s World Cup. Héctor Cúper has taken the reins of the Uzbek national association. His is not quite the path of splendour laid for international greats Zico, Luis Felipe Scolari and Rivaldo, at FC Bunyodkor in the late 2000s, but it is certainly a new beginning. Former ruler Islam Karimov’s death in 2016 has opened the nation to several questions of identity. Little is in doubt over their footballing potential, either way. They have a competitive domestic scene, contested by three high-quality Tashkent clubs, Pakhtakor, Bunyodkor and Lokomotiv. Each of these clubs has on at least one occasion in the past 15 years reached the Quarter-Finals of the AFC Champions League, Asian football’s premier club competition. If there was any one side to emerge from the primordial Central Asian soup, as we will see, it would be the Uzbeks.
What defines the Eurasian identity has always been open to interpretation, and as the largest economic segment of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was a perennial adoptee of Russia’s Western intellectuals. Almaty, the nation’s largest city, is now unpopular for its position on the southern border, and lost capital city status in 1997 under the action of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Presidential regime, now entering its 30th year. Nazarbayev is determined, moreover, to lift what he views as the taint to Kazakh patriotism; association with the wastelands of the south and east. National broadcaster Channel 31 entered Junior Eurovision in 2018, sending 12-year-old Daneliya Tuleshova as the first ever national representative, and there are suggestions that a senior debut is awaiting the state at some stage after 2019.
Authoritarian Kazakhstan is exempt from many more constitutions, however, and would only be considered credibly European in any sense by the corruptible characters at UEFA. It was in the spirit of unity, and a begrudging acceptance of Nazarbayev’s weight being thrown, that in 2002 they received commission for continental reassignment; they have been proudly wreaking havoc with scheduling ever since. Astana, ever the gleaming epithet to the sweating gallons of oil that pour out of the nation on the daily, manufactured its footballing culture from a skeletal existing structure; in 2008 Almaty’s FC Megasport and FC Alma-Ata merged, their fans and stadiums disposed with, and Lokomotiv Astana imagined as successor to a paltry throne. The 30,000-seater Astana Arena was erected in its honour, completed by 2009 and now also homing FC Bayterek, a side most famous for their affiliations to the national FA, shipping youth products off to the academies of São Paulo. In late September 2015, the Champions League finally arrived in the city, and Astana went unbeaten in all three group stage matches played at their high=spec stadium against Galatasaray, Atlético Madrid and Benfica.
The man who masterminded such scalps, Bulgarian Levski Sofia icon Stanislav Stoilov, was in March appointed the next Kazakh boss. His tenure began confidently; Hungary, the supplier of many a statement victory to minnows in recent decades, going down 3-2 in Stoilov’s first match, but in the first international match held in Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s much-funded home village Felcsút, losing to a 94th minute goal from opponents Bulgaria. The Nations League was received lukewarmly afterwards; home thrashings of Azerbaijan and Andorra, but a painful series of defeats to Georgia, and failures to produce more than single points from visits to Riga and Andorra la Vella. It was, however, a start. Stoilov may have reasonable aspirations for achieving the nation’s best qualification record ahead of Euro 2020. Having never achieved more than a couple of victories in any prior campaign, they face decent prospects against Russia, Scotland and Cyprus, and have San Marino’s points as a given. If they cannot force through qualification at this opportunity, then they have sealed their own irrelevance.
Incandescent neighbours Kyrgyzstan could not be have stronger continental ideals to the contrary. Stifling frustrations of the geographical might of the Kazakhs, the nation’s population of six million adopt views not beyond their global reality. If you were to draw, for example, an intersect between oil riches and abject rural poverty, Bishkek, the capital, would sit daintily in that midpoint. A million technologically isolated citizens reside in the city that time openly admitted its confusion to; where Black Sea-style classicist architecture clashes with vast open squares, a mini caricature of Moscow and Beijing’s might, and paling monumentally to Kyrgyz natural elevation, with an enduring image created by the arcing stretch of the Tian Shan range’s embrace of the hardy throngs in its bosom.
Brewing nicely at Bishkek’s altitude, newly-elected President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s rivalry with predecessor Almazbek Atambayev has gained international focus this year. Questions of democratic credibility before the election have mutated into investigations into the nature of loans of several hundred millions of dollars to the Chinese firm who worked on the modernisation of power plants that packed up during this January’s seriously sub-zero winter. The cat-and-mouse game in government has created almost unbreakable tension, with firings and threats of impeachment not just the items of ongoing White House narratives. Fortunate, then, that there is some distraction in the nation’s first ever Asian Cup qualification for the tournament that begins in January 2019. Drawn in what is almost certainly the strongest group, alongside South Korea, China and fellow debutants the Philippines, 40-year-old Russian manager Aleksandr Krestinin’s side will battle wits with Marcello Lippi, Sven-Göran Eriksson and former Portugal manager Paulo Bento at just the first hurdle.
Krestinin could not have trekked much further from his birthplace of Krasnodar, near the Crimean border, to find stable employ. In 2008, he rocked up in Kochkor-Ata, a town of only 16,000 people on the Uzbek border, as a 30-year-old centre-back coming off the back of spells in central Siberia and the Russian Far East, where winter chills of -30oC quickly become the daily norm. Within two years, he had made the step up to become coach, and won FC Neftchi Kochkor-Ata their first ever First Division title, while only missing out on the double in a Cup final decided by one goal. Instead of becoming a caricature of the spluttering Russian, unwelcome in cultural isolation, Krestinin found his home in Kyrgyzstan, and in October 2014 moved to Bishkek to take up very serious duties.
A far cry from the bazaar town of the Jalal-Abad region, where walnuts are as famous an export as oil, the capital could not overwhelm the imperturbable Krestinin. The relationship he and the national team have formed since has been serene; four years, and more, of vastly improved fortunes. It has helped that the plans laid before him have been followed to fruition, and that divides that could easily exist between Turkic, Chinese and Russian roots have not troubled his premiership. Viktor Maier, Vitalij Lux, Viktor Kelm and Edgar Bernhardt, Kyrgyz’s raised in Germany, were convinced of their patriotism, and Ghanaian-born player Daniel Tagoe has been retained from the trio of countrymen who arrived in the Top League in the late 2000s.
The continuity of current Kirghiz football is also to be admired, imposed through Krestinin’s temporary role as manager of record national champions FC Dordoi Bishkek, who won their first league title for four years in 2018. Almost apologetically, relative to Astana and the Kazakh national team, the Spartak Stadium, based only a block away from central Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square, hosts both Dordoi and the Kirghiz FA, and can be a lively office when regulars of the athletics association are also thrown into the equation. Many national team players have represented Dordoi at some stage of their career, but it is far from a pre-requisite for notice today. Players take advantage of emerging Kyrghyz ties to the outside world, and football in Kyrgyzstan is leading from the front in a pro-active recruitment search. Margins, as with investment, attendances and attention, may be minimal, but stability counts for a lot in the humblest of the Central Asian states.
In a decade of unarguable ambition, ten managerial changes speak of little continuity in boisterous neighbour Tajikistan. By a distance the smallest of the five brotherly states, its barren natural vistas are far more envied than any of the distinctly abject cities, but indignity, insecurity and democratic chastity have become part of several fundamental facts for the Tajik people. Theirs is not a distinguished Russian or ancient Chinese identity, but Persian, and sharing its lengthy southern border with Afghanistan, was treated merely by the Soviets as a buffer zone during proxy conflict. Although Islamic faith, shared by 98% of the population, is what binds the Tajik people, Emomali Rahmon, permanent President since 1992, has negotiated an uneasy national relationship with worship. The nation is officially secular, and practice must be undertaken in less overt terms than in any neighbouring states. The Tajik Civil War of 1992 until 1997 certainly influenced the policy, with hard-line Islam factions countering the nascent government, and threatening to tear the nation into even less significant halves, eternally at odds.
The Tajik capital, Dushanbe, was of course critical in the conflict, and government forces rallied in its position in the nation’s west, exerting extensive control over the halls of power as regional politics came to stabilise. Formerly a distinctly Islamic variation on the name of their great overlord, Stalinabad, the city only grew to its current status in the years after 1929, when uncle Joseph’s need for industrial productivity and overzealous governance resulted in the swelling of a town of just 6,000 to a foremost city of over 200,000. Russian influence fixated throughout the next set of decades, and during Mikhail Gorbachev’s ungainly attempts to disentangle from Afghan occupation, Dushanbe, resourceful for troops, became rather a talented footballing city overnight. In the final three seasons of the Top League, CSKA Pamir Dushanbe competed amongst what remained of the USSR’s disintegrating best, and by virtue of being the only non-Russian side not to withdraw by the Quarter-Finals, reached the last four of the 1991-92 Soviet Cup.
In a continent of intimidating contrasts, Tajikistan’s footballers have been quite content to find their niche. The AFC Cup, a Europa League-esque competition for Asia’s ‘developing nations’, has proven solid ground; Istiklol, five-time consecutive Tajik champions, reached two finals, in 2015 and 2017. The same catch twenty-two that befalls several Celtic managers, however, emerges half the world away, in a competition of far less frills. Falling at this year’s group stage, manager Mukhsin Mukhamadiev had to go.
The same post-dissolution movement that Mukhamadiev made as a player from Pamir to Lokomotiv Moscow was undertaken by Khakim Fuzailov, a midfielder at the time. Their exposure to professional environments can be overvalued, however, and it is Fuzailov who is stepping into his former team-mate’s shoes at Istiklol after failing with the national team over the previous two years. The expanded Asian Cup format this season presented a great prize for the Tajik FA, with the opportunity to match the result of their Kyrghyz neighbours in a first-time qualification. Defeat to Yemen, now debutants at the event instead, consigned their hopes to history for another four years. There is no reason that it cannot be achieved, but for rivals to make haste while they appear to stand still, Tajik frustration is inevitable. They do not have plenty – the population of Tajikistan have a median national age of just 24.5 years, reflected in the make-up of the national team – but there is much promise to make up for that.
If the Tajiks lack establishment, Turkmenistan is drastically short of a workforce at all. Only five million or so citizens abide in the arid state, 70% of the land mass overtaken by the Karakum Desert. Through the landform runs the Karakum Canal, one of the most ecologically ruinous projects the USSR ever commissioned, which since 1954 has contributed significantly to the rapid drying of the Aral Sea on the Uzbek-Kazakh border. In the heart of the desert also sits the Darvaza gas crater, an open-topped basin, 70 metres wide, of flickering methane fumes known to tourists as the ‘Gates of Hell’, once inadvertently created by Soviet oil explorers in the 1950s, and left burning ever since. You can understand why few would want to reside in close proximity.
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, however, is possibly the most curious head of state around. A former dentist, he has tried his hand, as seen on YouTube, to DJing, rapping, guitar serenading and military training, and as President also of the nation’s Olympic Committee, has demonstrated his expertise in horse riding and golf, often found in a fetching velvet-lined tracksuit in national colours. The nation has recruited Jennifer Lopez, Jack Nicklaus and others to reinforce Berdimuhamedow’s message, and its tightly controlled press has been compared only to North Korea.
Former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-proclaimed Türkmenbaşy from 1991 until 2006, rebuilt the capital Ashgabat to the Disneyland-type imitation of a democratic society it is today. The city was never great – or even a city – before being built up by Stalin’s USSR, but was struck down in 1948 by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, with the death and destruction of two-thirds of the city utterly ruinous. Needless to say, sport is also entirely manufactured here, and the hero of the scene is undisputedly Ýazguly Hojageldyýew, returning for his second spell as national team manager after winning five consecutive league titles with FC Altyn Asyr. The 20,000-capacity Ashgabat Stadium houses both, alongside fellow Ýokary Liga sides FC Ashgabat and Ahal, but the 48,000-seater Olympic Stadium is the real jewel in Berdimuhamedow’s crown, and as part of a reported $5 billion Olympic Village hosted the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, where Turkmenistan strangely topped the medals table after entering a record number of athletes – for any nation – ever.
A very creditable debut in the 2004 Asian Cup did not extend much to continued Turkmen glory, but as they prepare for their second appearance in the coming weeks, hope springs eternal. In that squad, a handful of players in the Russian and Ukrainian professional leagues were present, but in an environment of glamour in the UAE, they will have only winger Ruslan Mingazow, who has journeyed from Riga to the Czech First Division, as some form of star. Japanese legions, minus a fair few World Cup veterans, an Ali Al-Habsi-led Oman and Cúper’s Uzbeks will suffocate them, undoubtedly. But they are there, and are prepared to scrap. It is more than can be said for others, if that is at all to their credit.
All five nations are prepared to sacrifice for their own improvement. This is an admirable and direct legacy of their Communist past, and in some cases, their present. They have different interpretations of what it is to be influential, of what values should be prioritised. They have different relationships with President Putin, Premier Xi Jingping and the rest of the outside world – much to do with their concentration of oil at any one time. But 2018 presented all five with an opportunity I don’t believe was, ultimately, granted at even a small level to them. For a World Cup tournament to be hosted in the hearth of their former communal living space, they were conspicuously bereft from attendance. Who can afford those train fares to Moscow these days though, eh?
Russia’s vastness is no excuse for the cold shoulder presented alongside much of a 20,000km land border, and if the West has decided to accept Putin’s hospitality, then it is hypocritical to be blasé about the ignorance to the East. The opportunity of a World Cup, watched by billions, will never reach Central Asia directly, so failing to maximise recognition from one in a neighbour who considers you such a cultural deformity is tremendously sad. None of the states will gain PR from reflections upon a successful competition, none will rise in the world rankings, none will benefit from the rise of service sectors in Russia, where without the trade of their oil they would not have reached levels of very modest fortune they have today. Even Kazakhstan, symbiotically European in aspiration, did not profit, and the selection of Ekaterinburg as an Asian venue fooled no one.
Life goes on, I suppose. Hardships are dealt out, luck occasionally greets labourers, and the cycle of politics chunters on. Eyes will be averted again, and little will change. What can, until charity ever bestows itself?
What’s next then?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!