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Soccer School Sparks Controversy in Kyrgyzstan

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Soccer School Sparks Controversy in Kyrgyzstan

FC Barcelona visited Kyrgyzstan to inaugurate two new football academies. Japarov is touchy about investigations into how the schools are funded.

Soccer School Sparks Controversy in Kyrgyzstan
Credit: Facebook / Kyrgyz Presidential Administration

On the evening of August 30, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov headlined a team of Central Asia’s best football players to go up against the Barca Legends. Some 5,000 people cheered on the game, which ended 3-0 in favor of the former Barcelona players. While Lionel Messi was not on the field, other famous players from FC Barcelona and the team’s president, Joan Laporta, were in Kyrgyzstan to inaugurate a new football school.

The Barca Academy is a school for children aged 6 to 18 years old to hone their footwork and learn the creative style of play unique to FC Barcelona. As of 2019, there were 49 outposts of the Barca Academy in 23 different countries worldwide.

Two academies will open soon in Kyrgyzstan, one in Bishkek and another in the southern city of Jalalabad. There are a handful of Barca Academies in East and South Asia, but the two opening in Kyrgyzstan represent the first in Central Asia.

Japarov laid a capsule in Bishkek to inaugurate the capital’s Barca Academy on August 30, one day after a ceremony in honor of the completed construction of a football academy in Jalalabad.

Plans for the Barca Academy in Bishkek are grandiose, including multiple fields, a seven-story medical clinic, a museum, a café, and a hotel. Such a massive project will cost a pretty penny, and the president’s press service announced that about 10 billion som ($113 million) had been raised to implement construction of the Barca Academy.

In an interview with Kabar on August 26, Japarov made it very clear that none of those 10 billion som are coming from the government’s budget. “The project is being implemented through private funding,” the president said.

But where exactly is that money coming from? Independent media organization Kloop – known for its tireless reporting on corruption – looked into the financial details around the construction of the two Barca Academies in Kyrgyzstan.

It’s not clear who will foot the bill for the Bishkek academy, and the Kloop article doesn’t touch that question at all, but Kloop found that the already-completed Jalalabad football school was franchised by a company called JalGroup Asia LLC. The amount to franchise the Barca Academy in Jalalabad is not in public records, but Kloop looked to Barca Academy in Moscow to estimate the costs. There, the schools’ operators pay 2-3,000 euros a month in royalties on top of a one-time 400,000 euro fee for buying the franchise.

Kloop’s investigation found multiple connections to chairman of the State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev, his wife, and his sons. The article also identifies Russian citizen Nikolai Korobovskii as a node in the financing for the Barca Academy. Korobovskii co-owns JalGroup Asia LLC, along with a man whose family name and patronymic match the wife of President Japarov. Korobovskii owns several mines in Jalalabad and Talas regions, as well as an energy company that distributes electricity in Kyrgyzstan. The businessman has ties to RosAtom, a Russian state-owned corporation involved in the construction of nuclear powerplants.

In what appears to be a direct response to Kloop’s investigation of the Jalalabad football academy, which was published on August 22, Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor’s Office has sought to shut down the news site.

Japarov has also made public snipes about Kloop since the article went live. In the Kabar interview on August 26, the president started off by addressing himself to “those who call themselves freelance journalists” working for Kloop, who he said “only bring harm to the Kyrgyz people, no benefits.” According to Japarov, the big harm of investigations like this is that it scares off future investment in Kyrgyzstan.

The president openly admitted, “Yes, the Tashievs, Japarovs, and other foreign investors are participating in this project.” He explained the distinction between prior leadership that funneled money out of the country and these efforts, which “only stands to benefit the state” by attracting investments.

Central Asia is no stranger to kleptocrats who have stolen millions from public coffers and hidden the money away in foreign bank accounts. While Japarov is right that projects like Barca Academy are bringing billions into the country, it does not excuse growing evidence of systematic nepotism, in which relatives and friends are given positions of power and lucrative projects. The regime knows this, though, which partially explains the touchiness around Kloop’s coverage.

Kloop is capable of scathing reporting, and their article’s efforts to piece together the ownership of LLCs is no match for the outlet’s most hard-hitting investigations. The irony of this potentially being the final straw for Kloop is that the article reads less as an indictment of Kyrgyzstan’s elites and more as criticism of FC Barcelona’s business dealings. The club earns more than $100 million a year from the academy franchises, raking in cash from ultra-rich megalomaniacs who pay for their kids to play alongside football champions.

This will not be the last we hear from Kloop, of course. And with so many massive investment projects popping up – including the 10 billion som ($113 million) to build the Barca Academy facilities outside Bishkek and $20 billion to construct a city from scratch in Issyk Kul – it seems there will be many further opportunities for Kloop to keep watch on corruption.