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The beautiful gain As Kyrgyzstan advances in World Cup qualifying, the authorities are tightening their grip on soccer

Source: Meduza

Story by Bektour Iskender for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

A note from the editor: With the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers already underway, Kyrgyzstan is still in the running to compete in the beautiful game’s greatest tournament. But the following story by journalist Bektour Iskender is about much more than that. It also involves FC Barcelona, Bishkek’s spy chief, and the ongoing clampdown on press freedoms in Kyrgyzstan. Full disclosure: the prosecution of the country’s leading investigative journalism outlet, Kloop, is a piece of the puzzle — and Bektour is one of Kloop’s co-founders. However, he stepped down from his management position in 2023, before the Kyrgyz courts ordered the newsroom to shut down. Bektour’s reporting for The Beet picks up where Kloop left off.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In August 2023, FC Barcelona brought their veteran team, the Barcelona Legends, to play a friendly match in Bishkek. The squad boasted an impressive lineup, featuring World Cup winners such as Brazil’s Rivaldo and Spain’s Carles Puyol, among others. They faced off against the Asian Legends, a one-off team cobbled together solely for this occasion. Though mainly composed of retired Central Asian players in their forties, one of the team’s members had never played a single competitive match: Kyrgyzstan’s president, Sadyr Japarov.

The Barcelona Legends won 3–0. But no one really cared about the result. The match was part of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the inauguration of the Barça Academy in Jalal-Abad, the first of two Barcelona soccer schools being franchised in Kyrgyzstan. While Japarov’s love for soccer is well known, the authorities had never embarked on a sports project as evidently costly as this one. Kyrgyz investigative journalist Aruuke Soltonoy found this intriguing. “These are huge amounts of money. Building an academy, buying a franchise, inviting famous footballers — it’s all expensive,” she told The Beet.

Soltonoy set out to investigate the project’s financing, and the popular Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop published her findings eight days before the Barcelona Legends match in Bishkek. The story uncovered that relatives of Japarov and Kamchybek Tashiev — the powerful head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (the GKNB, formerly known as the KGB during the Soviet era) — were key investors in the private company that purchased the Barça Academy franchise. Moreover, it revealed that Russian tycoon Nikolay Korobovsky was also a partner in the venture. 

Kyrgyzstan’s spy chief Kamchybek Tashiev (center) and FC Barcelona club president Joan Laporta (right). Kyrgyzstan, August 2023.
FC Barcelona

Kloop identified Korobovsky as the main shareholder in the Podolsk Machine-Building Factory, a major manufacturer in Russia with ties to the state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. Korobovsky also owns several companies in Central Asia; in 2021, he acquired Bel-Alma, one of the largest coal mines in Kyrgyzstan. The next year, Korobovsky received Kyrgyzstani citizenship, a common tactic among Russian businesspeople seeking to evade sanctions.

Although the exact amount paid to Barcelona FC for the franchise remains undisclosed, Kloop pointed out that the Barça Academy franchise in Moscow cost 400,000 euros (more than $433,000), plus monthly royalty fees of 2,000 to 3,000 euros. “This story was just based on public data. We did not uncover significant corruption, although we felt there were subtle elements of it,” Soltonoy said.

Nevertheless, the response from the Kyrgyz authorities was surprisingly severe. In an interview with the state news agency Kabar, Japarov accused Kloop of “harming” Kyrgyzstan. “This cannot continue,” the president said, addressing his comments to Kloop journalists. “I have a request for you: If you cannot work for the good of Kyrgyzstan, then at least do no harm.” 

Japarov acknowledged the family ties undergirding the Barça Academy project but tried to spin these connections as advantageous for Kyrgyzstan. “It would be better to rejoice that the Tashievs and Japarovs are bringing opportunities to the country rather than taking them away,” he told Kabar.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov watches as FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta lays the first brick in the new Kyrgyzstan National Stadium. August 2023.
FC Barcelona

Two days later, the Bishkek Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit seeking to shut down Kloop’s publisher. Although the suit did not mention the Barça Academies story specifically, the prosecutor’s office said the Kloop Media Public Foundation had “damaged the authorities’ reputation through its reports critical of the government.” A Bishkek Court ordered Kloop’s closure in February 2024. “We were surprised that authorities reacted this way to our story,” said Soltonoy.

A family affair

Six months after the Barcelona Legends match, Tashiev took over as president of the Kyrgyz Football Union (KFU), the governing body responsible for the country’s national teams and professional soccer league. He did not step down from the GKNB to focus on his new position in soccer; instead, Tashiev has been juggling both roles.

The Kyrgyz authorities’ deepening involvement in professional soccer has coincided with the country’s worsening human rights situation. Japarov and Tashiev — who have been in power since late 2020 — face heavy criticism for steering Kyrgyzstan toward authoritarianism and cracking down on independent media.

Tashiev serving as KFU president may also bring Kyrgyzstan into conflict with FIFA’s principles, which explicitly prohibit “political interference” in the operations of national soccer associations. The most severe penalty for government interference is a ban from international competitions, including the FIFA World Cup. In 2022, FIFA suspended Zimbabwe and Kenya’s memberships after both countries’ governments replaced the leadership of their respective soccer associations. As a result, Zimbabwe and Kenya were disqualified from the Africa Cup of Nations, the most prestigious tournament on the continent.

The change in the KFU’s leadership in early 2024 arguably resembles what happened in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Following Kyrgyzstan’s disappointing performance at the Asian Cup in January, KFU president Mederbek Sydykov stepped down. Two days later, Japarov told Kabar that the KFU needed to be brought under “strict control” for the government’s investment in soccer to produce results. “There must be order. We know this well. That’s why yesterday I suggested to Kamchybek Tashiev, ‘Lead the Kyrgyz Football [Union] yourself,’” he said.

At an extraordinary meeting a few weeks later, Tashiev was unanimously elected as the KFU’s new president (no other candidates were put forward). “FIFA representatives attended the elective congress as observers,” a FIFA spokesperson said in response to questions from The Beet. “Although Mr. Tashiev still appears to hold a position within the government, he must, however, also comply with the relevant provisions of the KFU Statutes regarding potential conflict of interests.”

Fans greet the FC Barcelona delegation upon their arrival in Kyrgyzstan. August 2023.
FC Barcelona

The FIFA spokesperson did not respond to questions about Japarov’s call for Tashiev to lead the KFU and did not explicitly clarify whether Tashiev’s position constitutes government interference in FIFA’s view. The spokesperson cited an article of the KFU Statutes that says, “Any member of the Executive Committee must decline to participate in discussions and decisions if there is a risk or possibility of a conflict of interest.” The KFU Statutes also prohibit “external interference” in the election of its governing bodies.

Aside from Tashiev’s government position, his preexisting family ties to soccer could pose a conflict of interest. As Kloop’s investigation revealed, his eldest son, Tai-Muras Tashiev, co-founded JalGroup Asia, the private company that owns the Barça Academy franchise in Kyrgyzstan. (JalGroup Asia is also registered at the same Jalal-Abad address as the company that owns the professional soccer club Muras United.) 

Tashiev’s younger son, Emir-Khan Kydyrshaev, is an aspiring professional soccer player (using a different surname is a common practice among the family members of Kyrgyz politicians). In 2022, Kyrgyz media reported that Kydyrshaev had joined FC Barcelona’s youth team, citing the KFU as their source. While he appears to live in Spain, there is no other confirmation that Kydyrshaev has ever played for Barcelona at any level. Transfermarkt, a leading global database of soccer clubs and players, lists Kydyrshaev as a defender for Sant Cugat FC, a seventh-tier club from a small Catalan town. This May, at just 19 years old, Kydyrshaev was called up to train with the Kyrgyz men’s national team in preparation for the second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, but he didn’t make the final roster.

As sports lawyers point out, there is no clear-cut definition of what FIFA considers government interference. However, the Swiss-based organization has been known to turn a blind eye to seemingly obvious violations, as in the case of China.

Journalist Guljan Turdubayeva, who covers sports for RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, doubts that FIFA will take any action against Kyrgyzstan unless the government openly interferes with sporting decisions. “I think they face no threat of disqualification, especially since [FIFA President] Gianni Infantino himself visited Kyrgyzstan [in 2023] and opened the new office of the Kyrgyz Football Union together with President Sadyr Japarov,” she told The Beet.


Watch your language How Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan resist Russia’s linguistic influence


Watch your language How Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan resist Russia’s linguistic influence

Free points

Tashiev heading up the KFU and his son getting called up to train with the national team couldn’t have been more timely. Despite a disappointing performance at the 2023 Asian Cup, the Kyrgyz men’s team is having its most successful World Cup qualifying campaign in its history. On June 11, they tied Oman (1–1) and advanced to the third round of the qualifiers for the first time ever. And with FIFA expanding the World Cup’s group stage to include 48 teams, Kyrgyzstan’s chances of playing in the world’s most important soccer tournament are higher than ever.

“[Tashiev] wants to boost his own ratings. Because if you are developing football, then you’re considered a saint [and] your ratings go up,” said a former KFU employee who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely.

Soccer hasn’t always had the power to sway politicians’ ratings in Kyrgyzstan. In 2013, the Kyrgyz men’s team hit an all-time low in the FIFA World Ranking, placing 201st out of 210 national teams. However, the next five years marked a significant turning point: a string of successful performances in World Cup qualifiers, coupled with several victories over stronger opponents, culminated in 2018 when Kyrgyzstan achieved its highest-ever position in the FIFA World Ranking, 75th place. This inevitably drew massive crowds to home games and increased the popularity of the Kyrgyz national team and its players.

When Kyrgyzstan competed in the Asian Cup for the first time in 2019, the entire country rallied behind the team, with big-screen broadcasts organized in public squares, major malls, and sports bars. Vitaly Lux became a national hero when he scored a hat-trick for Kyrgyzstan in a memorable triumph against the Philippines, propelling the team to the tournament’s second round. Upon the team’s return to Kyrgyzstan, thousands of fans gathered in Bishkek’s central square for an event honoring the players.

“[Kyrgyz politicians] saw how many people came to the national team matches, saw the emergence of national pride, the extensive media coverage, and support from the public,” the former KFU employee told The Beet. “This phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to our country; it happens elsewhere, as well. However, [our] politicians realized these factors could translate into free points for their approval ratings.”

Kyrgyzstan’s players celebrate a goal during a 2026 World Cup qualifying game against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. November 16, 2023.
Wong Fok Loy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Kyrgyz officials have long been enmeshed in other sports, especially wrestling and boxing, as well as the traditional kok-boru, the infamous Kyrgyz “dead goat polo.” Kok-boru holds such significance that it’s effectively under government control. In April, then-Prosecutor General Kurmankul Zulushev was elected president of Kyrgyzstan’s Kok-Boru Federation — on top of his duties as head of the International Kok-Boru Association. (Zulushev resigned from his post as chief prosecutor last week.)

Kloop’s Aruuke Soltonoy notes that soccer has drawn in new demographics that the authorities’ sportswashing efforts previously failed to reach. “Controlling kok-boru is a way to influence the [rural] population and gain their support,” she explained. “Kok-boru is very popular in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the regions outside the capital. It’s deeply loved there, but in Bishkek, it doesn’t attract much attention.”

According to the journalist, soccer provides a much more effective means of achieving nationwide influence, and — more importantly — it helps the authorities score points in Bishkek. “Not only men watch football; women watch it too. Students, businesspeople, government employees, residents of small villages, and those in large cities — football brings them all together,” she said.

* * *

The former KFU employee believes the most obvious role model for Kyrgyzstan is its southern neighbor, Tajikistan, where Rustam Emomali, the mayor of Dushanbe and the son of Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, has led the soccer federation since 2012.

“Rahmon’s son started his political career with the football federation. Of course, [the Kyrgyz Football Union] paid attention to this. If Kyrgyzstan played against Tajikistan and lost, they would say, ‘Well, of course, they have a lot of money,’” said the former KFU employee. “Rustam is the president’s son, and the Tajik Football Federation can do anything. Naturally, the KFU wanted the same status, where the federation is untouchable.”

Tajikistan’s example shows that tight state control over soccer can actually yield success, even though it might risk contradicting FIFA’s rules. (FIFA has not taken any action against Tajikistan.) During the 2023 Asian Cup, Tajikistan reached the quarterfinals, overtaking giants like China in their group and sensationally knocking out the United Arab Emirates in a penalty shootout.

Japarov and Tashiev might genuinely want to replicate this blueprint out of a love for soccer: beyond the popularity-by-association it brings them, they appear to be true fans of the sport. However, their involvement also entails suspicious nepotistic practices, the likes of which investigative journalists have previously identified in the Japarov government’s distribution of state contracts. 

Turdubayeva says this could potentially harm Kyrgyz soccer in the long run. “When Kydyrshaev was called up to the national team, it sparked a debate among fans. Some supported the decision, saying that it’s beneficial for the team to have Tashiev’s son, who trains in Spain and brings valuable experience. Others argued that he is taking the spot of a more talented player,” she said.

Though it would be unfair to overlook the national team’s recent wins, Turdubayeva believes giving credit where it’s due is important. “Tashiev has only been in football for less than six months, and people are already talking about his role [in the Kyrgyz team’s success], but I don’t think he has much to do with it,” she said. “These successes are a result of the hard work of the Football Union and its staff.”

The Kyrgyz Football Union did not reply to The Beet’s questions in time for publication.

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Bektour Iskender for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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