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Central Asia Not Shy In Its Sporting Ambitions

Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, is now coaching Uzbekistan's top team.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, is now coaching Uzbekistan's top team.
Some of Central Asia's energy-rich countries have their eyes set on international sport stars to boost their image.

For example, Kazakhstan is generously spending enormous amounts of cash on luring established names in the sports world to represent Kazakhstan in international sporting events.

Kazakh media have said some $15 million is being spent annually on the Astana cycling team, which has lined up several champions, such as Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.

Several well-known athletes from Russia, China, and other countries have been naturalized as Kazakh citizens. The list includes Moscow-born tennis players Yevgeny Korolev and Yaroslava Shvedova, as well as Belarusian biathlete Elena Khrustaleva, who represented Kazakhstan in the Vancouver Olympics in February.

Kazakhstan's bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics was unsuccessful, but the failure did not spoil the country's enthusiasm. Astana and Almaty are hosting another prestigious winter sports event next year -- the 2011 Asian Winter Games.

Some Kazakh sportsmen have expressed their displeasure with their country's obsession with foreign sports stars, and suggest the money should instead be invested in training "homegrown" stars. "We should bring experienced foreign coaches to train young Kazakhs," the online magazine suggests.

That is exactly what Uzbekistan has being doing to boost its sporting chances. Uzbekistan has reportedly paid 13 million euros ($16 million) to Luiz Felipe Scolari, a renowned Brazilian coach, to train Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor soccer team.

That doesn't mean Uzbekistan isn't hedging its bets by doling out cash to ready-made foreign football stars at the same time, however. Brazilian football star Rivaldo recently signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Bunyodkor, a soccer club that once recruited Cameroon-born star Samuel Eto'o.

While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are investing heavily to boost sport, cash-strapped Tajikistan appears to be on the losing end as it watches its own talented sportsmen jump ship.

A lack of funding has forced several Tajik coaches to "defect" to Russia, Austria, and Iran, among other countries. Amkar Perm in Russia's top soccer league is being trained by a Tajik coach, Rashid Rahimov.

But it's not all bad news. Tajik authorities have apparently succeeded in luring Olympic bronze medalist Rasul Bokiev back home. The talented judo master had left for Moscow after he couldn't find any sponsors to continue his sporting career, but now he's back home.

He was reportedly offered $500 a month to train "at home" and to represent Tajikistan in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. "It wasn't about money, they played the patriotism card," one Tajik newspaper reported.

-- Farangis Najibullah