Amidst little fanfare in 2008, Barcelona announced a cooperative link up with an obscure team in Uzbekistan, Kuruvchi FC. It is a deal that has definitely benefited both clubs, but the commercial partnership has raised questions. Not least because the Uzbeki government has one of the worst records in the world for human rights violations, and that Barcelona are sponsored by UNICEF.
Initially the link up was on footballing grounds, with Kuruvchi players being allowed to train with and be trained by Barcelona players at Miniestadi during their winter break. The two clubs would then play a lucrative friendly before March 2010. Also, players such as Samuel Eto'o, Carles Puyol, and Andres Iniesta would travel to Tashkent, the capital, to cement the deal in the eyes of the media.
But who are Kuruvchi?
It might be news to many, but the club are now one of the world's richest teams, and are a powerhouse in Asian football, despite only being created in July 2005.
Initially when the club were created they were called Neftgazmontaj-Quruvchi, which was then shortened to Kuruvchi, which means "creator" in the Uzbek language. By 2008, The Swallows had won promotion twice and were playing in the highest league possible in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek Oliy League. In their first season in the Uzbek Premier League they won the double.
Shortly after the club changed their name to Bunyodkor and then announced a renewable yearly partnership deal with Barcelona. That season the club who had not existed a mere three years before made it to the semifinals of the Asian Champions League where they were eventually beaten by Australian outfit Adelaide United.
Bunyodkor then began to build a massive 15,000-seat stadium, where Barcelona President Joan Laporta planted the first brick in a huge PR exercise. Less than 18 months later and the club are on the verge of building a $150 million stadium, despite their 'old' stadium being only one year old.
With money being no obstacle, Bunyodkor began to attract some of the world's best players to enhance their growing reputation. Barcelona players Carles Puyol, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas all received €1 million each to perform at a PR training school and to wear the Bunyodkor jersey for further publicity.
Not happy with just being linked with the games top stars through PR purposes, the club made an audacious bid to sign Samuel Eto'o and offered the Cameroonian star €25 million to play for club for just three months. He turned the deal down and chose to link up with Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan.
The club then moved to sign Rivaldo from AEK Athens . The 36-year-old will take home a reported $14 million for two years worth of his services. Zico then joined his fellow countryman for four months before he too was replaced with yet another wandering Brazilian, one Luiz Felipe Scolari . The World Cup winner had just been sacked by Chelsea and was looking for a new club.
How did a team rise from complete non-existence five years ago to become one of the richest clubs on the planet?
For this we have to go back to the name change of the club. When Kuruvchi were initially created they were representative of the local area. Seeing a glorious chance for international PR they changed their name, mid-season and without prior acknowledgement to anyone, to Bunyodkor, citing the main reason for this change as the club were no longer regional but national representatives.
The vice-president explained the economic expediency of the move this way:
“The number of sponsors and partners of the club has grown: it was four (official founders are Neftegezmontaj, UzGazOil , Gissarneftgaz and Kokdumalakgaz ), whereas now it has grown to 12. All these companies are involved in the creative sector of the country’s economy.”
That is why the club’s name was changed from “builder” to “creator”.
The badge of the club was changed during this stage too, to one almost identical to that of Barcelona's.
Gulnara Karimova is the daughter of Uzbekistan's President for life, Islam Karimov. Under his rule for the past 20 years, Uzbekistan has become one of the world's worst black-spots for human rights violations.
As recently as March 26 2010, Human Rights Watch found Uzbekistan's current record as being abysmal by international standards. During their study of the country, it was found that people were detained with impunity, that journalists and NGO's were regularly arrested simply because of their profession, and the use of torture and ill treatment was rampant.
The committee also raised the issue of child labour which is seen as being widespread throughout the country.
During their studies on Uzbekistan it was found that unemployment is rife, almost 40 percent, and that the rate of children being left in orphanages to care for them is on the rise. Of these children roughly 10 percent are used for child labour like intensive cotton harvesting, while cases of child trafficking and child prostitution has also been reported.
It was also found during these studies by UNICEF and Human Rights Watch that the government were very lax when it came to applying international law for child labour.
Which brings us back to Bunyodkor and their alleged links with a government with a terrible human rights record.
There are many opponents to the regime in Uzbekistan. In 2009, Freedom House deemed Uzbekistan as being "the worst of the worst" in terms of civil rights abuses. While long time anti-Karimov campaigner Craig Murray has launched many scathing attacks on Uzbekistan's human rights abuses.
Murray was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, before he was removed from his post after exposing civil rights abuses by the US funded Karimov government. His book Murder in Samarkand documented his two years in Tashkent and how the abuses and double standards employed by the British and American governments changed his beliefs and outlook on life. It will be released as a film in 2011.
In 2007, Murray wrote an article linking Alisher Usmanov with the Karimov government in Uzbekistan, and that he was the money behind both them and Gulnara. Since then "the hard man of Russia" has taken over a 25 percent stake in Arsenal FC.
When asked about Budyonkor's and Gulnara Karimova's rise, Murray had this to say.
"It's part of a campaign by the president to win popularity for his daughter. I hear that she will eventually replace him as president. The regime is trying to win popularity by the old-fashioned bread-and-circuses method."
To many political commentators she is seen as the only possible heir to her father, as she will be the only one able to protect both her and her father's assets and cronies.
Through pumping money into Bunyodkor, she has begun to change the face of the family and is seen as using the clubs supporters to gain credence for the governing political party that she is destined to take over.
The link up with Barcelona has certainly put Bunyodkor on the map.
It is somewhat ironic that Gulnara Karimova is now Uzbekistan's Ambassador to Spain, and this has fueled the speculation that she is considering buying RCD Mallorca.
Recently she held an auction with the donations set for various charities. During the sale she declared that she was representing UNICEF, something the organisation fiercely deny.
“UNICEF does not have any projects with Ms Karimova. We do not have any relations with Chopard,” the spokesperson said.
This did not put Karimova off, as she continued to declare UNICEF as her main sponsor.
In another event she enticed Sting to play in Uzbekistan for £1 million. When the British press found out about the event the singer was embarrassed into making an excuse. He used UNICEF as his shield. Something the organisation vehemently denied.
Gulnara also used Elton John for publicity during a visit to Los Angeles. The gay activist and AIDS campaigner was probably unaware that he was standing beside a representative of a government that would have jailed him for his sexuality and beliefs.
In 2006, Barcelona chose the moral high ground by letting UNICEF become the sponsor of their famous jersey. It was the first time in over 107 years that the club had allowed an emblem on their jersey.
At the time many cynical commentators alluded to Barcelona trying to tap into a new market by allowing the well known children's rights organisation sit proudly on their jersey.
"For the first time in our more than 107 years of history, our main soccer team will wear an emblem on the front of its shirt," said Joan Laporta the Barcelona president at a UNICEF executive committee meeting . "It will not be the brand name of a corporation.
"It will not be a commercial to promote some kind of business. It will be the logo of 'Unicef'. Through UNICEF, we, the people of FC Barcelona, the people of 'Barça', are very proud to donate our shirt to the children of the world who are our present, but especially are our future."
Barcelona have become involved with a team backed by an allegedly corrupt government, and one that has been accused of gross injustices, for a reported £5 million a year. While wearing the UNICEF logo, it would seem that Los Cules have many questions to answer.