Turkmenistan: Former leader’s football team sweeps league

Arkadag team
Image caption,Arkadag has signed most of the Turkmen national team

By Robert Greenall

BBC News

A football team in Turkmenistan has made a stunning debut in the country’s top league, winning the national championship in its first season.

But Arkadag is no ordinary club. It was set up by authoritarian ex-leader Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and claims most of the national team in its ranks.

Reports say fans of other teams have cried foul, alleging match-rigging.

Mr Berdymukhamedov, who ran a repressive, secretive state, handed the presidency to his son Serdar last year.

He is currently speaker of the Turkmen parliament.

The former president set up the Arkadag club in April, basing it in a new showcase city of the same name which was built within five years and was inaugurated in June. He designed the team’s logo and kit.

Arkadag is also Mr Berdymukhamedov senior’s official title, meaning protector or guardian.

President Berdymukhammedov leading a bike ride
Image caption,Mr Berdymukhammedov, seen here in white, is well known for organising mass sporting events

The team signed most of its rivals’ best players before the start of the season.

It won all of its league matches and claimed top spot in the league on Sunday with four games to spare.

It only slipped up once, in a friendly match in Bulgaria, drawing 1-1 with the North Macedonian second division side Besa Doberdoll.

The team is now looking to win the double.

“This encourages us to win more victories, we will try to win the Turkmenistan Cup,” AFP quoted striker Didar Durdyev as saying on Tuesday.

But the Europe-based website Hronika Turkmenistana quoted one fan of a rival club as saying that referees were openly helping Arkadag win.

In a match against Shagadam, the fan said, the referee unfairly awarded Arkadag a penalty in the 91st minute, from which they clinched victory.

The fan added that Arkadag was killing any interest in the sport in the country.

Farruh Yusupov from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service said the draw against the North Macedonian side was revealing.

“If the best team of the nation scores draw with a second division team from Macedonia, you can say it’s not of the highest quality,”┬áhe told Newshour on the BBC World Service.

Turkmen fans mostly followed big teams in Spain and England rather than local sides, Yusupov added.

“If you look at the stadium when these teams play, no spectators are watching… But Turkmens, at the same time, they love football. They mostly cheer for famous teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona or Manchester United or Chelsea. Arkadag would not be there,” he added, speaking from Prague in the Czech Republic.

Former President Berdymukhamedov, now 66, was famous for apparently winning various sports competitions when he was in office, such as cycling and horse and motor racing, and frequently appeared in videos showcasing his sporting prowess.

He also actively promoted sport among citizens and government officials, leading mass runs, walks and cycles rides.

These were all seen as features of what was considered an http://kamusgakjelas.com/ autocratic regime, in which he operated both a cult of personality and a state monopoly of the media, and presided over a poor human rights record.

Little has changed under his son Serdar, who took power in March 2022.

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