When it comes to the rough-and-tumble, centuries-old game of kokpar, there are two countries that rule the sport -- and then there is everyone else.
The master horsemen of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan dominate the old nomadic game played by two teams ferociously battling for possession of a headless goat that must be carried and placed inside a goal.
Though 11 countries took part in the first-ever world championship of kokpar -- held on August 20-27 in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and using an imitation goat carcass instead of the real thing -- everyone expected the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz to square off in the final.
The two countries have long been rivals in kokpar -- also known in some Turkic-speaking countries as kok-boru, and in Afghanistan as buzkashi -- which has been described as a blend of horse racing, wrestling, and polo.
The Kazakhs held on for a narrow 4-2 win to claim the first Asian kokpar championship in 2013, with nine countries competing in Astana.
But three years later, the Kyrgyz struck back and easily defeated their Kazakh rivals with a 7-1 win at the World Nomad Games held in Kyrgyzstan.
That loss to their much smaller southern neighbor was a bitter one for the Kazakhs, who were also angered by a serious injury to one of their players, who was flown by helicopter for hospitalization in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh fans and officials blamed the injury on Kyrgyzstan's star "kokparist," Manas Niyazov, the team’s best player, though many observers said his conduct on the field had been fair and the injury simply an accident in the game's dangerously rough play.
But the outrage in Kazakhstan over last year's incident was so intense that threats were made against Niyazov, who was advised not to travel with his team to Kazakhstan for the world championships. He decided to stay home.
Then a dispute over the use of horseshoes during the competition in Astana left the Kyrgyz team staring at a forfeit in its first match against Mongolia. But tournament officials reversed their decision -- seen by many Kyrgyz fans as an attempt to keep their team from making the playoffs -- and Kyrgyzstan won convincingly, 4-0.
Eyebrows were further raised by the Kyrgyz side when they saw that two of the four officials for the August 27 championship match were Kazakhs (the other two were from Russia and Uzbekistan, respectively).
The much-anticipated final was tightly contested, but the Kazakh team jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the match and held on for a 4-1 victory and the first kokpar world championship title.
Rumors Of Bribe-Taking
Kyrgyz fans complained of biased officiating in the Kazakhs' favor, though most observers agreed the match was a fair result.
"It was not a clean game," Kyrgyz fan Maris Ashimov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "There was some [heavy] pressure in the beginning.... [And] our kids did not use their horses...and did not do their best either. The [Kazakh] horses were intentionally used for collisions. The [Kazakhs] added some regulations of their own. We said fine. They were making some fuss with horseshoes, too."
Other fans felt the lackluster performance by the Kyrgyz team was perhaps the result of its players being paid to lose the match.
But Ikram Ilmiyanov, the president of Kyrgyzstan’s Kokpar Federation, put the loss down to just an off day for the mighty Kyrgyz team.
"There are [only very few] teams, or athletes, who were never defeated," he said. "I believe our Kyrgyz team showed its great skills regardless of the Kazakh kokpar with its slightly different rules. One day is different from all others."
He also dismissed any possibility of bribe-taking by his team.
"I would say to all lies [and] some rumors [about a hidden deal]: God knows that every Kyrgyz kokpar team member did their best, showed their great skills. Today our Kazakh brothers won. We don't regret anything. We consider it as the Kyrgyz team’s victory also."