Turkmenistan’s Controversial Football Team Raises Concerns of Match-Rigging

In a surprising turn of events, a football team in Turkmenistan, named Arkadag, has emerged victorious in the country’s top league, securing the national championship in its debut season. However, this achievement has not come without controversy. Arkadag, which was established by the authoritarian former leader Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and is comprised predominantly of national team players, has faced allegations of match-rigging from fans of rival teams.

The Arkadag club was created in April on the orders of Mr. Berdymukhamedov, who built a new city, also named Arkadag, within a span of five years. As the honorary title of the former leader, “Arkadag” means protector or guardian. Notably, Mr. Berdymukhamedov designed the team’s logo and kit and signed many of the best players from rival teams.

Despite having encountered only one minor setback in a friendly match against a second division side from North Macedonia, Arkadag has remained unbeaten in all its league matches. The team secured the top spot in the league with four games to spare, signaling its dominance within the Turkmenistan football scene.

Following their remarkable victory, the players of Arkadag expressed their aspirations to continue their success by aiming for a double win in the Turkmenistan Cup. Striker Didar Durdyev conveyed his determination to achieve more victories, stating, “This encourages us to win more victories; we will try to win the Turkmenistan Cup,” as reported by AFP.

However, concerns surrounding the integrity of matches involving Arkadag have arisen. A Europe-based website, Hronika Turkmenistana, quoted a fan from a rival club who alleged that referees have been openly favoring Arkadag and helping them secure victories. The fan mentioned a specific incident in a match against Shagadam where the referee allegedly unfairly awarded Arkadag a penalty in the 91st minute, leading to their victory. These allegations have raised suspicions about the transparency and fairness of the league and raised questions about the future of the sport in Turkmenistan.

It is worth noting that the former president, Mr. Berdymukhamedov, had a reputation for participating in and winning various sports competitions during his time in office, including cycling, horse racing, and motor racing. He often featured in videos showcasing his athletic abilities. Additionally, he actively promoted sports among citizens and government officials by organizing mass runs, walks, and cycle rides. These activities were seen as emblematic of an autocratic regime, characterized by a cult of personality and control over the media, along with a concerning human rights record.

Following his father’s footsteps, Mr. Serdar Berdymukhamedov assumed power in March 2022. Since the change in leadership, little has changed in Turkmenistan, and the country continues to draw attention due to the controversial actions of its football team. The success of Arkadag in winning the national championship in its first season, coupled with the allegations of match-rigging, has further perpetuated concerns about the state of governance and fairness within the country.

While these developments have undoubtedly captured the attention of football enthusiasts, they also highlight broader issues surrounding power dynamics, transparency, and integrity in sport. The controversy surrounding Arkadag serves as a reminder of the influence wielded by authoritarian figures and the potential risks associated with their involvement in various sectors, including sports. As the situation unfolds, it remains crucial for the relevant authorities to address the allegations of match-rigging promptly and transparently, ensuring that the sporting landscape in Turkmenistan maintains its credibility and fairness.