Passions often flare during a sports match, but referee favoritism has just gone to a whole new level.
Riots broke out on June 14 in Tajikistan’s southern town of Kulyab after referees called a disputed, last-second play in favor of one of the teams. This wasn’t just any team, however. It was Istiqlol Dushanbe, whose striker and owner is Rustam Emomali, President Emomali Rakhmon’s 23-year-old heir apparent. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse rock-throwing fans of the local team, which, thanks to the disputed call, lost 1-0. RFE/RL reported:
Witnesses said the fans were angry because they believe the referees called the game to Istiqlol's advantage. Fans who left the stadium attacked the Istiqlol team bus, players' cars, and even firefighters and ambulances near the stadium.
They then turned on Emomali. (Don’t worry, he’s fine.)
Private Tajik news agencies reported that police arrested 20 for hooliganism; 10 were injured. The state news agency reported the Istiqlol win, but failed to mention the violence. (A shaky video of the aftermath can be viewed here on YouTube.)
Unrest is rare in Tajikistan, where memories of the 1992-1997 civil war are still painful. But resentment of Emomali’s rise to power -- and his behavior on the streets of Dushanbe -- is widespread. In addition to owning the “winning” team, Emomali is the deputy head of the Tajik Football Federation. Recently, his father named him head of a government department fighting smuggling and customs violations.
The anti-regime protests across the Arab world this year have prompted commentators to wonder if Tajikistan, the sick man of Central Asia, might also succumb to revolutionary fever. While it’s too early to draw a parallel, these riots, directed at the embodiment of the president, do present Rakhmon with a worrying development. After all, Kulyab is his home turf; he's won support there by appointing most of his officials from the region. So don’t expect Istiqlol to receive a warm welcome in Khujand or Khorogh any time soon.