Tajikistan: All the president’s son’s men

Photo: Футбол Тоҷикистон http://footballtj.wordpress.com

Damiano Benzoni

Rustam Èmomalī used to be a striker for two-time Tajik champions Istiķlol Dušanbe, a team of which he has been captain, president, owner and founder. In November 2010 he was named vice-president of the Tajik FA and later was unanimously voted president. He is part of the FIFA Committee for Development and is the representative of Tajikistan at the Asian Olympic Council. In 2011 he left his political party in order to take up a post as the head of the state customs agency department responsible for fighting smuggling and custom violations: a huge responsibility since Tajikistan is crossed by traffic of heroin and opiates coming from bordering Afghanistan. In the past he was a member of the Dušanbe city council, a counsellor for the State Committee on Investments and State Property, a member of the executive committee of the ruling party and a deputy chairman of the Youth Union – the organisation which took the place of the Soviet Komsomol. Rustam Èmomalī is the son of Èmomalī Rahmon, the authoritarian president of Tajikistan. According to some observers, he’s his designed heir.

Èmomalī Rahmon became the head of Tajikistan in the first, tormented months which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the break-out of a civil war which would last until 1997 and after a coup d’état. At the end of the nineties he survived an attempt of assassination and two attempted coups and was re-elected, allegedly always with more than 75% of the vote. His name has been associated with charges of corruption and human rights violations. The US Department of State and the Human Rights Watch NGO denounced restrictions on civil and political liberties (speech, press, association, religion) and tortures, abuses and arbitrary arrests on behalf of security forces. A February 2010 cable from the US Embassy in Dušanbe disclosed by Wikileaks denounced president Rahmon’s corruption, as he was accused of diverting most of the revenues of the state aluminium company TadAZ to a secret offshore company he controlled: “Rahmon and his family control the country’s major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large. As one foreign ambassador summed up, President Rahmon prefers to control 90% of a ten-dollar pie rather than 30% of a hundred-dollar pie”. The cable expressed concerns on the corruption and the inability of border guards to stifle trafficking of opiates from Afghanistan and on the weakness of democratic institutions in the country.

The footballing career of Rustam Èmomalī ended in 2009, when Istiķlol (whose name means “independence”) was promoted to the top flight of the Tajik league. In January, as he was named president of the FA, he stepped down from any official tie with the team he founded, in order to ensure his impartiality, often put in doubt by his opponents. He took the post from Suchrob Kosimov, a former commander of special forces of the Ministry of the Interior who held the position for ten years. Kosimov declined the chance to run for another term and was instead named honorary president. Èmomalī declared his intention to make Tajik football professional, forcing teams to register and to make contracts for the players and building an academy for the development of future players. Nikola Kavazović, Serbian coach for Istiķlol and the Tajik national team, is enthusiast about such projects: “Tajik football made seven-miles progression under Rustam Èmomalī. He is a young and ambitious man who wants to make the national team and the clubs respectable on the Asian scene”.

Kavazović, a 37-year-old from Belgrade, started coaching after an injury brought his footballing career to a halt when he was only twenty: he played for OFK Belgrade and had donned four times the jersey of Yugoslavia at youth level. After coaching in the Serbian and Bosnian leagues, he decided to take up new challenges and, assisted by his agent Darko Marić, to focus on the Asian market, where he found Istiķlol. In August the bench of the national team became vacant, as Bosnian coach Kemal Alispahić’s contract expired just before a match against Qatar and wasn’t renewed. Kavazović was called in as an emergency replacement and obtained a surprising 2-1 win. Now the national team is trying to qualify for the first time in its history to the Asian Cup in 2015: “[Coaching a club and the national team] is difficult, but not impossible. Sitting on two chairs is only going to be until the end of season. After that, I will meet the president of my club Šochruch Saidov and decide what to do”.

Photo: RFE/RL http://www.rferl.org

After winning the league twice, Istiķlol Dušanbe is currently fourth in the table and still has to play some matches, postponed in order to allow the team to play the national cup (lost after penalties against Regar-TadAZ Tursunzoda) and the AFC President’s Cup, won after beating in the final Palestinian team Markaz Shabab Al-Am’ari. The latter is a historical result for Tajik football, as it allows the nation to enter, for the first time, two teams in the AFC Cup. Regar-TadAZ, apart from winning the national cup, is top of the league: they lost only one game out of twentyand last week they thrashed the last team in the league, Zarafšon Panč̦akent, 12-0. Regar-TadAZ hails from the border town of Tursunzoda, close to the border with Uzbekistan and home to the main TadAZ factory, the largest aluminium smelting in Central Asia and one of the largest in the world. According to Kavazović “quality in Tajikistan is concentrated only in two teams – Regar Tad-AZ and Istiķlol. There is also a few players with that quality, but only six or seven. They are from Vahš Qurǧonteppa, SSKA Pomir Dušanbe and Ènergetik Dušanbe. Domestic competitions are organised on Asian standards, supporters are great, on every match there are between five and fifteen thousand spectators”.

The second place in the table is occupied by Ravšan Kūlob, a team which has gone through some stormy times with the regime of the Èmomalīs and with their rivals Istiķlol, although last week, in a “special ceremony”, twenty-five of their players and other members of the club joined Hizbi Chalķī-Demokratī Toč̦ikiston, the Popular Democratic Party of Tajikistan, lead by president Rahmon. According to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Tajik service, the move was forced by the relationship between Ravšan Kūlob and Muhammad-zohir Sohibov, a successful entrepreneur who happens to be the president’s son-in-law. The last match between the two teams was played in April and ended in a 1-0 win for Ravšan Kūlob. One week later the Tajik FA started a disciplinary action against five players of the team, accused by the Serbian Istiķlol manager Nikola Kavazović of playing in a rude manner and of causing a serious injury to Aleksandr Kudrjašov. Safaralī Karimov was charged with injuring a player, was fined five thousand somonis (around a thousand dollars) and was suspended for five matches, while Ghanaian Benjamin Amankwah, who got yellow-carded twice during the match, was fined five hundred somonis and got a one-match suspension. Three players – Erač̦ Cholov, Chasan Rustamov e Ma’ruf Rustamov – were charged with improper, unethical and unsportsmanlike behaviour and were fined five hundred somonis. The referee, Dilovaršoh Orzuev, was also suspended for four matches. Before the match, Rustam Èmomalī had given Ravšan Kūlob a new team bus. As he is recalled of that match, Kavazović hits the ceiling with fury: “Players from Ravšan Kūlob are football murderers! The player who was punished with five games and a thousand USD is not a human being, if I was in Kudrjašov’s place I would suit him for attempted murder! They are second in the league, but they are not playing football, it’s a combination of ultimate fighting and great acting performances. At every match they start to beat and punch their rivals till they score. In that moment, the game is over: they are ready to lie on the field after every contact”. Second place would mean a chance to qualify for the 2013 AFC Cup: “It’s going to be the greatest shame for Tajikistan football. If they represent the country in an élite continental competition, the whole of Asia is going to laugh at us”.

Photo: RFE/RL http://www.rferl.org

Also in the previous season Ravšan Kūlob was targeted by the Tajik FA, after they lost a home match to Istiķlol 1-0, the decider being scored in the last minute after a contested offside the referee hadn’t called. The reaction was furious: the supporters attacked the police and the Istiķlol team bus, pelted the referees with stones and threw their rage at ambulances and fire-engines. As they attempted to get near to Rustam Èmomalī they were stopped and dispersed by special units of the police. Fifteen were injured, twenty were stopped by the police and the home club was fined three thousand somonis and forced to play the following five home matches one hundred kilometres from Kūlob. One week later Ravšan played SSKA Pomir, a team with traditional ties to the army, in Dušanbe: this was a chance for supporters to take their protests to the capital city, as new riots took to forty people being arrested. Eurasianet, at the time, suggested the riots were actually a result of rage and resentment against the government, as an alleged eye-witness told the website: “Everyone is afraid of Rustam. The officials, the players, the owners, and the supporters have had enough. It was like a test, to see how the authorities would respond”. Kavazović doesn’t agree with critics against Èmomalī: “I work for Rustam Èmomalī as coach of the national team and I am proud to be one of his men! I must tell he has not functions in Istiķlol, as some people say. He is only the president of the FA and he’s doing an excellent job”. As Kavazović got the job three years after Èmomalī quit his footballing career, he has never seen the president’s son play football: “I don’t know how he plays football. I played futsal with him once, and I can tell that he is a masterpiece”.

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