The rise of Bunyodkor: How Rivaldo and Scolari helped create an Asian giant
Back in August, 2008, little-known Uzbekistan club Bunyodkor grabbed the world’s footballing headlines when they announced the signing of 36-year-old Brazilian legend Rivaldo.
It came just weeks after they narrowly failed to lure Samuel Eto’o on a short-term contract offer reportedly worth US$25 million (S$34.4 million) that left the Cameroon star’s “head spinning”.
Fast forward a month and former Barcelona star Rivaldo scored home and away as the Tashkent club defeated Iran’s Saipa 7-3 on aggregate in the AFC Champions League quarter-final to reach the last four at the first time of asking.
Despite a shock semi-final defeat to A-League side Adelaide United, Bunyodkor – founded just three years earlier – had signalled their intent to become one of Asian football’s big players.
Domestically the club was also creating a stir. Server Djeparov, part of the all-conquering Pakhtakor team that won six league and cup doubles between 2002 and 2007, had been wrestled away by their city rivals earlier in 2008.
He would go on to add a seventh double with his new side – as well as become Uzbekistan’s first ever Asian Footballer of the Year – during his debut season as the new boys in town took over.
“It was very prestigious to sign a contract with Bunyodkor at that time; they set us big goals,” Djeparov, capped more than 100 times for Uzbekistan, told FourFourTwo.
“I was very happy to learn soon after that Rivaldo was signing as it meant I was going to be playing with one of the best players in the world.”
Boys from Brazil
Another Brazilian legend, Zico, took over at the helm shortly after Rivaldo’s arrival to guide the club to the aforementioned double before departing in early 2009.
But the big names kept coming as Word Cup-winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived in June of that year, in time to steer the rising stars into a second successive Champions League quarter-final.
Their continental dreams were dashed for another season following elimination by eventual winners Pohang Steelers, yet these were still heady days in Tashkent as the samba boys’ invasion continued.
Denilson’s reward for helping Pohang win the Champions League was a lucrative contract in the Uzbek capital while Joao Victor, who would go on to enjoy five years with Mallorca, was another Brazilian signing in 2009.
“It wasn’t just Bunyodkor that were happy about their arrivals, it was all of Uzbekistan, because the stars were coming to our country,” the club’s general director Bakhtiyor Boboev told FourFourTwo.
“Even Pakhtakor and Lokomotiv [Bunyodkor’s other city rivals] were pleased because it motivated them and gave them great experience against the big names.
"The Brazilians lived here in paradise … they got on well with the locals because we are very hospitable to anyone from abroad.”
The following year brought a third of four consecutive domestic titles and a second league-cup double. But Scolari, brought in to achieve Champions League success, oversaw a 3-0 Round of 16 reversal to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in a loss that signalled the beginning of the end of the Brazilian revolution.
Two days prior to that defeat in Riyadh, Bunyodkor’s chief backers and the then-largest investors in the Uzbek economy, Zeromax, were suddenly shut down.
The aftermath was equally ugly, with Scolari departing by mutual consent before the month was out and Rivaldo terminating his contract in June. The sprinkling of other Brazilians at the club soon followed suit.
Djeparov, meanwhile, one of the great local successes over the two-year period, was loaned out to FC Seoul in July before going on to help the Korean club win their first K-League Classic title in a decade.
He then signed a permanent deal at the end of the season.
“At Bunyodkor I wanted to develop as a player and help the club achieve their targets,” Djeparov recalled.
“I did that and the whole experience was great for me; being part of the same side as Rivaldo helped me improve a lot and Scolari was equally important for my development because he taught us how to play tactically.”
Evolution replaces Revolution
Far from being the end, though, the hierarchy at Bunyodkor had created a solid foundation on which to continue the club’s development, without the star names.
The ensuing three years resulted in two more league titles and another Champions League semi-final appearance in 2012, when they were again eliminated by South Korean opposition and the eventual champions in the form of Ulsan Hyundai.
But while 2014 and 2015 resulted in disappointing fourth-place finishes in the league, as Pakhtakor reclaimed their place at the top of the Uzbek footballing pyramid, a state-of-the-art training complex complete with seven practice fields, an Olympic-size swimming pool and accommodation and learning facilities for youth team players looking onto the stunning 34,000-capacity Bunyodkor Stadium is worthy of a club with lofty ambitions.
Uzbekistan were also Asia’s best performers at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup last June, reaching the quarter-finals before defeat to Senegal.
Nine of the 21-man squad were Bunyodkor players and the trio of Dostonbek Khamdamov, Eldor Shomurodov and Zabikhillo Urinboev were the sole nominees for last year’s AFC Young Footballer of the Year award that was won by 19-year-old Khamdamov.
“In the beginning we chose revolution but after that, in 2012, we changed our strategy to evolution,” explained Boboev.
“The young players’ development became our main focus and we want them to ultimately move to Europe. These players were 11 and 12 when the Brazilians were here so they were inspired by what they saw; their motivation was high so they trained even harder … now they have the potential to play in the best leagues.”
AFC Champions League and the future
Consistency has been key to the Uzbek side’s progression – since their inaugural Champions League season in 2008, the club has never failed to make at least the group stage of the continental competition.
Last month Shomurodov’s brace secured a 2-0 playoff victory over the United Arab Emirates’ Al Shabab as Bunyodkor booked their place in this season’s competition, which is ironically being defended by Scolari’s big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande.
Khamdamov then grabbed two goals in the 3-3 away draw with Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia in the first round of Group B encounters, but a 1-0 reversal in the return fixture at Bunyodkor Stadium leaves Sergey Lushan’s men in desperate need of points from the upcoming double header with Iran’s Zob Ahan if they are to advance to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2014.
Currently third in their group, they host Zob Ahan this week before traveling to Iran for the reverse fixture early next month.
“There is a strong motivation to do well in the competition but we’re just lacking a bit of experience,” Boboev said. “All the things are perfect apart from that, so maybe [winning] the Champions League is too much to ask this year. But we have grown as a team and I hope we can become champions of Uzbekistan.”
Just how far Bunyodkor can go remains anyone’s guess, but this is a club built for the future.
“The academy now has 600 young players and 35 coaches … we are everywhere,” added Boboev. “And I think the fans are even more interested now [than in the Rivaldo days] because we have our young stars, everybody is local, so they get behind the team even more.
“The older fans in Uzbekistan are for Pakhtakor, but now all the young people support Bunyodkor.”
Photos courtesy of FC Bunyodkor