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Oil wealth has big impact on Asia’s soccer landscape

by Andrew Mckirdy

When the Asian Champions League began back in March, few outside of Uzbekistan had heard of Kuruvchi. Now, with the club preparing for Wednesday’s Asian Champions League quarterfinals after an extraordinary summer, the world is certainly paying attention.

The Tashkent side, formed in 2005, went into the ACL facing an uphill struggle to escape a group containing regional heavyweights Al Ittihad and Sepahan. Kuruvchi shocked its Saudi and Iranian rivals to finish top of the group, but that was just the start of the club’s amazing rise to fame.

The first bombshell dropped in July, when Kuruvchi announced it had reached a deal to sign Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o — one of the best players in the world — from Barcelona.

The announcement was laughed off by the Catalan club, but Eto’o refused to rule out the move, saying he would give it serious consideration.

The whole affair smacked of a publicity stunt by a club seeking to stamp its name on the world, but it is just possible that Eto’o was doing more than simply paying lip service with his comments.

The striker had been told by new Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola that he and teammates Ronaldinho and Deco were surplus to requirements, and was urged to find a new club.

While Ronaldinho moved to Milan and Deco joined Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea, Eto’o had trouble finding a club that would match his wage demands. Kuruvchi, it seemed, had money to burn.

In the end the move did not happen, but Kuruvchi was not finished yet. Just as the club had etched its identity onto the world’s consciousness, it changed its name and put its money where its mouth was.

Rebranded as FC Bunyodkor, the club poached former world player of the year Rivaldo from a shell-shocked AEK Athens. The money on offer, Rivaldo explained, was just too good to refuse.

One look at the list of sponsors on Bunyodkor’s Web site suggests the club is backed by serious muscle, and it would not be the first time money from the energy-rich Central Asian nation has been poured into soccer.

Uzbek businessman Alisher Usmanov owns a large share of Arsenal, and intends to launch a full takeover bid for the London club.

So many rich benefactors have raised the bar for soccer’s finances in such a short space of time that one would be forgiven for being blase about such deals, but Bunyodkor’s story and the recent Abu Dhabi buyout of Manchester City are too eye-popping to be taken in one’s stride.

The City deal, effectively bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi royal family, appears to be motivated by the emirate’s desire for prestige, with spokesman Dr. Sulaiman Al Fahim speaking of “attracting the world’s attention to the United Arab Emirates.”

That showcasing a nation’s sporting standing is better achieved by buying a club in England rather than at home says much about the current desirability of the Premier League, but Asian clubs may also benefit from soccer’s new petro dollars.

Roman Abramovich lavishes most of his wealth on Chelsea, but also gives substantial funding to Russian soccer.

Likewise, energy giant Gazprom has invested in German club Schalke while at the same time transforming Zenit St. Petersburg into UEFA Cup winners.

Arab soccer has always had superior funding to its Asian neighbors, but if wealthy Arab owners plow even a fraction of the cash heading City’s way into the Gulf, some clubs could well be “super sized” to the level Bunyodkor is aiming for.

The ethics of diverting so much money into sports rather than elsewhere in society is open to question, but from a soccer point of view, the rewards could be endless.

The new money pouring into the sport is, however, unlikely to see its way to Japan.

With an unprecedented three Japanese teams in the final eight of the ACL, it could be argued that the last thing the J. League needs after years of failure in continental competition is a new breed of wealthy rivals spending their way to success.

Japan has worked long and hard to get to the position it now finds itself in, and seeing those strides wiped away in the flash of a checkbook would be galling to say the least.

But the Asian Champions League is in need of genuine quality, and something must be done to raise the standard after a spate of one-sided score lines approaching double figures in this season’s first round.

If Japan wants to achieve dominance in international club competition, it must earn the right to do so on the pitch. And if crowds get to enjoy the surreal experience of Rivaldo playing for a team from Uzbekistan, it will be all the more interesting for soccer in this part of the world.