There is a new power in Central Asian football and, a year ago, it did not even exist.
Turkmenistan’s Arkadag FC kicked their first-ever ball in a competitive game just in April with a 2-1 win over Merw in the country’s top division. They then strolled to the league title by winning every match in the 24-game league season.
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By the end, the champions of the nine-team league scored 83 goals and conceded only 17.
It is perhaps not that surprising that this completely new club has immediately become dominant at home.
They are one of the projects started by former president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who was known to the nation of six million as “Arkadag” – a nickname which translates to “Hero Protector”. The ruler, who took power in 2006, handed the reins of state to his son Serdar Berdymukhamedov in 2022 but is still very much on the political scene.
One of his biggest legacies is the construction of a smart city, which cost about $5bn, also called Arkadag, based in the south of the country near the capital, Ashgabat. It was quickly decided that the 70,000 or so residents of this modern metropolis needed a new club.
Berdymukhamedov senior was not just involved in the naming of the team but also designed the logo, which is that of a horse, a recurring image in the president’s tenure during which he was often portrayed on horseback.
‘It’s basically the national team’
Ahead of the 2023 season, this new club moved into the transfer market and signed most of the country’s top players such as national team captain Arslanmyrat Amanov and star striker Altymyrat Annadurdyyew. In a recent squad named for World Cup qualification, 14 of the 26 selected were Arkadag players.
“At a certain point the president decided to have his own club and they now have the best players,” Alisher Nikimbaev, former manager of the Uzbekistan national team and an Asian Football Confederation official, told Al Jazeera.
“This is now basically the national team of Turkmenistan playing in a local competition. They are winning everything. It is no surprise as they have the administration behind them but this is a normal situation in Turkmenistan.”
Turkmenistan has been compared with North Korea in terms of the personality cults that surround its leaders and also as it is one of the most secretive, isolated and authoritarian countries in the world.
According to Al Jazeera sources, there have been rumblings of discontent from fans of other clubs at the fact that the transfer window was extended so Arkadag could complete all the player signings it wanted. There has also been grumbling over perceived favourable decisions from referees, such as a controversial decision given in the final seconds against Sagadam in November that ensured a 3-2 victory.
“Publicly there is no objection as people here are used to living under a dictatorship and are used to not saying whatever they think,” said Nikimbaev.
It is also hard to genuinely say what kind of enthusiasm exists in the new city for the new team. The 10,000 capacity Arkadag Stadium is full on match days but Nikimbaev pointed out that the stands look regimented.
“There are not many fans, it is all organised and they are groups who all come in the same uniform.”
Arkadag’s story is not unique in the region. In 2013, Astana FC was incorporated into the Astana Presidential Sports Club, a project of then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev which received financial backing from Samruk-Kazyna, a sovereign wealth fund created by Nazarbayev in 2008.
The club then won the next six league titles in the country and has played in the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious club competition in the world.
In 2008, Uzbekistan made headlines around the world as Bunyodkor FC signed Brazilian superstar Rivaldo and then played a friendly game against Barcelona. The Tashkent-based club, which then went on to win five of the next six league titles and reached the last four of the Asian Champions League in 2009, was closely linked to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
“It’s part of a campaign by the president to win popularity for his daughter,” former British ambassador to the country Craig Murray said in 2009. “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.”
It didn’t work as she was jailed after her father died in 2016.
Over in Dushanbe, Istiklol have dominated the Tajikistan league since 2007. It was co-founded by the son of President Emomali Rahmon. Rustam Emomali also went on to play for the team, only stopping in 2012 when he became president of the country’s football association.
Istiklol even made the Asian Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition, famously defeating Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in 2021.
Mubin Ergashev was the coach at the time.
“Arkadag have a project and a plan and like Istiklol, what they need is time and to develop understanding between their players,” Ergashev, who also coached the Tajikistan national team, told Al Jazeera, adding that they may need to improve their squad with foreign players to challenge for trophies in Asia.
With domestic domination complete, that is the next step. Arkadag will participate in the AFC Cup, the continent’s second-tier competition.
“They have the best players so in the short term, maybe the club can achieve something in Asia,” said Nikimbaev. “In the long term, it won’t be successful as the dominance of Arkadag will bring down the level of competition in Turkmenistan.”
Istiklol reached the final of the AFC Cup in 2015 and 2017 but Ergashev is unsure as to whether there will be any international glory for Arkadag – both club and former president – to bask in.
“We will have to wait and see what happens when they play next year,” said Ergashev.
The coach is also concerned about the standard of the league in Turkmenistan if it stays too easy for Arkadag FC.
“It isn’t good if the best team in a country does not have a rival.”