By Nick Harris
SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year
12 April 2011
Rivaldo, the former World and European Footballer of the Year who was part of Brazil’s World Cup-winning team of 2002, has spoken in detail for the first time, to sportingintelligence, about his ill-fated two-year spell with the Uzbekistan club, FC Bunyodkor – and how he is trying to recoup some of the €16m (£14.2m) he says he is still owed in unpaid wages.
The attacking midfielder’s experience offers a cautionary tale to any big name tempted into unchartered footballing waters for a big payday. And with more Brazilians than ever plying their trade across Europe and Central Asia, and more oil-rich nations hiring aging stars for massive sums, it is a story that could end up relevant to more than a few.
Roberto Carlos is one of several Brazilians at Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia, where Brazilians are the No1 import nationality, while Ruud Gullit at Terek Grozny has others in his team. Last month, an XI of former internationals including Romario, Dunga, Bebeto and Cafu took part in a controversial ‘celebrity’ game arranged by and featuring the former Chechen militia leader (and current Chechen president) Ramzan Kadyrov.
Rivaldo is still playing aged 38, with Sao Paulo in his native country, where he keeps a close eye on Brazilians up-and-coming generation including club-mate Lucas, and Santos’s Neymar and Ganso.
By now, he had hoped to have banked enough money from a stellar career that took in Barcelona, Milan and 10 other clubs, to have taken a hands-on benefactor-funder role at his ‘own club’, Sao Paulo’s Mogi Mirim, where he is the president.
But having only received a third of the money he was promised for going to Uzbekistan and trying to transform Bunyodkor into an eastern powerhouse, that ambition is on hold as he pursues legal action to try to recover some of what he is claiming.
“I am sorry it has come to this as I love Uzbekistan and have many close friends there,” he said in an interview arranged via his Geneva-based legal advisor, Luis Pereira, who has acted for seven players making claims against Bunyodkor’s Swiss-based parent company, Zeromax. The firm was declared bankrupt last year but remains subject to complex legal proceedings surrounding its ultimate ownership, and whether any claimants might recover losses from it.
“I had great plans,” Rivaldo adds. “I wanted to develop the Bunyodkor club to really put it on the football map. I wanted to improve the playing standards, build a new stadium, improve the training facilities and add a new level of professionalism to the club.
“I sent my people to Chelsea, Inter and Milan to help provide insight for how to run a successful European club. But regrettably it amounted to a string of broken promises and I feel incredibly let down.”
In a meeting in London, Pereira outlines for sportingintelligence the staggeringly lucrative deal that took Rivaldo to Tashkent in the first place – and how things started going wrong. “Rivaldo was at AEK Athens in 2008 when Bunyodkor made him an offer that was attractive not just in financial terms, but to build a club that he hoped would lead to a partnership with Mogi Mirim,” Pereira says.
Rivaldo initially signed a one-year contract with Bunyodkor, to whom he had been introduced by ‘Barcelona connections’. [One of the less salubrious parts of this tale is that Barca had their own €5m-a-year deal – the Spanish giants were paid that sum – to be ‘partners’ in various ventures with Bunyodkor, whose ownership structure was always opaque at best.]
Rivaldo felt he was on safe ground because for contract negotiations, he dealt with the seemingly respectable Zeromax. His one-year deal was worth €6m after tax (£5.3m) plus an image rights deal netting him 26 per cent of certain other income, meaning he made around £7.1m in that first year.
Yet within a few months of signing in summer 2008, he was offered and accepted a two-year extension, until summer 2011, as well as consultancy duties that would see him try to turn Bunyodkor into a regional superpower, if not something bigger.
All seemed well for the first year. Bunyodkor certainly had lots of money. They hired Zico as coach (2008-09), and later Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari (2009-10). They offered Samuel Eto’o $25m to join them for one season: he turned them down. And they paid as much as $1m each to some high-profile Spanish players – including Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas – to travel to Tashkent to take part in coaching clinics-cum-photo opportunities.
But in Rivaldo’s second year, from summer 2009, he was not paid. “He was told there was no major problem, just a cash flow issue, and while it seemed unusual he didn’t think there was any need to worry,” Pereira says.
Weeks of waiting turned to months and then a whole year, but Rivaldo, who had recruited a number of young Brazilians and other staff, felt responsible for their well-being, he says, so stayed to ensure they were being looked after. In the end, he was housing five of them and paying their wages himself.
By July 2010, he had had enough, and called in the lawyers. Zeromax went bust around the same time. Ultimate control of Bunyodkor, it now seems, was always in the hands of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the autocratic Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. “That’s certainly what we now believe now was the case,” Pereira says.
“The club owners at Zeromax promised me a great partnership,” Rivaldo says. “I was going to forge a partnership with my Brazilian club, Mogi Mirim. Among other initiatives, that club would provide a talent pipeline of young Brazilian footballers who would go to play at Bunyodkor.
“I was paid for the first year of my contract – but after that….nothing. I held on and even started investing my own money in the Uzbek club. I even ended up putting up the Brazilian players and colleagues who were there in my own home as Zeromax wasn’t paying the hotel bills.
“But there is a limit on how long you can continue like that – I was desperate for the project to succeed but the funds dried up overnight.”
Did he not expect there might be a catch with so much money on offer?
“First you have to know that we Brazilian players have a mentality to export ourselves. We have a capacity to adapt to different places, and I had no reason to think that the project wouldn’t unfold as suggested . . . In the end I had no option to but to leave the club and return to Brazil. It leaves a very bitter taste.”
Bunyodkor won the Uzbek League in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and are now coached by Mirjalol Qosimov. The days of lavish spending appear to be behind them. In February they signed 11 players: seven from Uzbekistan, three from Serbia and one from Kyrgyzstan.