Ever since the arrival of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, the world of football seems to exist in two separate yet parallel universes.
There are clubs who teeter on the brink of bankruptcy despite brief flirts with glory (a la Leeds United and recently at Portsmouth). Then there are other clubs whose history has been blanketed by anonymity and mediocrity but now whose names, with the financial aid of the multi-billionaire, are dared uttered in the same sentence with title aspirations. There is no need to mention them by name because they know full well who they are.
Critics of the “open checkbook” operations at such clubs are accused of nothing more than jealousy and envy. Those same critics return the favor by branding such clubs of representing everything that is against the essence of football. If ever there was a time when fans view the game in distinct shades, black and white, now is that time.
To Chelsea’s credit, despite the loss of Jose Mourinho, the club has maintained their competitive edge in challenging for silverware on a consistent basis despite the game of musical chairs amongst past managers. If there is a club that seems to have mastered in getting the most for your money, then all eyes should be on Stamford Bridge. For one club far removed from London, there are many similarities with Chelsea in terms of financial resources, aspirations and even a former Chelsea manager. But that’s where the similarities end.
FC Bunyodkor may be a name that is remotely familiar with a handful of readers here on Soccerlens.com but a nice article was written about the club by Chris Rickleton on June 21, 2009. At the helm of footballing matters for the club is none other than Luis Felipe Scolari. While Mr. Rickleton’s explanation of Bunyodkor’s history is probably better than mine, it is worth mentioning here again that Bunyodkor’s finances, at worst, mirror Chelsea’s financial muscle, or at best eclipse the money poured into the club thus far by Roman Abramovich.
When Bunyodkor offered then Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o a “dizzying” sum of $25 million to play for three months, it didn’t take a genius to conclude that money is not an impediment to this club. Despite signing for Bunyodkor on June 8, 2009, Scolari’s first real test was its quarter-final fixture in the Asian Champions’ League against South Korea’s Pohang Steelers on September 23, 2009. The domestic league had been merely scrimmage exercises for Bunyodkor. Scolari had a good four months to acquaint himself with a squad filled with capable players such as former (in the sense of 10 years ago) World Player of the Year Rivaldo and 2008 Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov.
Like many “nouveau-riche” clubs, Bunyodkor had an urgency to win a title of importance and meaning to establish itself as an elite club. Unlike the mentality that appears to plague “nouveau-riche” clubs in the Premiership, which amounts to winning something to justify the spending, Bunyodkor have no worries in silencing the critics because up until now, despite its lavish spending and speculative ties to Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov’s daughter, there have been no real football critics.
Sure, fans across the world lifted an eyebrow or two at the suggestion of Samuel Eto’o playing for such a relatively unknown club back in 2008. The same happened again when Scolari signed a year later. But just like any other curiosity, interest dies with time and most of us can’t even locate Uzbekistan on a map. This shouldn’t be the case but sadly it can be. Such is the dilemma of the club to project itself as a brand name in the international football community.
That appeared to change on September 23, 2009 when the club hosted South Korean K-League side and Korean Cup winners, Pohang Steelers in the first leg of their quarter-final encounter in Tashkent. Despite conceding the first goal to the Korean side, a questionable second yellow card on Pohang’s Kim Hyung-il opened the flood gates for Bunyodkor as Victor Karpenko and a two goal strike from Server Djeparov ended the first leg on a score line of 3-1 for Bunyodkor.
The second leg was played in Pohang’s Steelyard stadium, a facility that was never used in the 2002 World Cup in Korea, but was the country’s first football only stadium. Holding onto their 3-1 first leg advantage was the key for Bunyodkor to advance to the semi-finals and a chance to win Asia’s premier club competition and a spot in the 2009 FIFA World Club Championship. In other words, for Bunyodkor, everything was at stake.
Scolari, currently the highest paid manager in the world (yes, he makes even more than Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson), was smiling at the half-time break as the score sat at 0-0. An early opportunity in the second half found Kim Jae-Sung latch onto a through ball and calmly shoot past the keeper and it was 1-0 Pohang. A diving and yet awkward header from Pohang’s Brazilian striker, Denilson, off a corner kick made it 2-0 for Pohang and just like that, in the span of nine minutes, it was Pohang who were ahead on the away-goals rule. A third goal by Denilson appeared to end the tie and make a mockery out of Scolari’s contract, but as football has its way, Victor Karpenko found space and time to shoot and put one past Pohang’s keeper in the 90th minute. Bunyodkor were saved from the brink and lived yet another day to keep the dream alive.
Surely in Rivaldo’s head, at some point in the match, there must have been flashes back to that Barcelona-Chelsea quarter final tie in the Champions’ League some nine years ago when Barcelona had lost 3-1 in the first leg only to win 5-1 at the Camp Nou in extra time. Any aspirations of repeating that feat for Rivaldo and Bunyodkor were put to rest when Pohang’s Macedonian strike man, Stevica Ristic, met the ball before the Bunyodkor keeper and defender to head in a fourth for Pohang in extra time. That goal gave Pohang the advantage on the aggregate and Bunyodkor’s season at the continental level came to a rude and crashing halt.
Not the most mouth-watering of ties on the calendar, yet the match has been touted to be one of the best played so far in the fledgling years of the Asian Champions’ League. And for all the negative associations Bunyodkor have created for themselves, from the flaunting of astronomical sums of money at players past their prime to shady ties with individuals more known for their human rights abuses and unsavory reputations, perhaps that’s what the Asian Champions’ League needed to put itself on the map of more fans.
Bunyodkor go back to the drawing table and will have to ask themselves whether paying a coach the sum of thirteen million Euros is acceptable when the return is a quarter-final loss and a guaranteed no-show in Dubai for the 2009 FIFA World Club Championship. More or less the same question that Chelsea’s Peter Kenyon must have asked before parting company with Scolari.