Central Asian oligarch eyes seat on UEFA executive committee
MOSCOW (AP) -- From the depths of Central Asia, Kazakh oligarch Kairat Boranbayev is targeting one of the tops jobs in European soccer.
Boranbayev is based in Almaty, five time zones and 5,400 kilometers (3,350 miles) east of UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. But the politically connected businessman comes with a raft of celebrity acquaintances, citing soccer greats Luis Figo, Fabio Cannavaro and Clarence Seedorf as character references as he runs for a seat on the UEFA executive committee.
UEFA is in flux under President Aleksander Ceferin, with only three of the existing executive committee members running again among 13 candidates for eight seats at the governing body's congress on April 5.
"I think everyone has the same chances," Boranbayev told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. "When I was told UEFA is a closed organization, I honestly didn't believe it."
Kazakhstan was initially part of the Asian confederation, but it changed to Europe in 2002 in search of higher-level competition with the portion of its territory west of the Ural mountains serving as geographic justification.
Boranbayev, who has a tourism property empire and opened the country's first McDonald's, has wealth estimated by Forbes magazine's Kazakh edition at $350 million. He has also posed for photos with boxing great Mike Tyson, while Kanye West played at his daughter's wedding to the grandson of Kazakhstan's authoritarian president.
Boranbayev isn't running for the UEFA seat as a reformer, but argues that former Soviet countries deserve more representation a year ahead of the region's first World Cup in Russia. That could chime with the national associations who vote in executive committee members, since Hryhoriy Surkis of Ukraine is currently the former Soviet Union's only representative and is leaving his post.
"We consider that Russia taking on the responsibility of hosting the football World Cup has stimulated the development not just in Russia but all post-Soviet countries," said Boranbayev, who argued it's a "part of Europe which was always a bit detached from European football."
Boranbayev has long had business connections with Russian state gas company Gazprom, now a major UEFA sponsor, but denies using those connections to help his election campaign. He said it would "absolutely not" be a conflict of interest.
"Using that as an extra instrument to get on to the executive committee, I don't do that. I don't think they even know I applied," he said.
Boranbayev isn't the only candidate with connections to a UEFA sponsor. As general secretary of the Azerbaijan soccer federation, Elkhan Mammadov's boss is Rovnag Abdullayev, who combines being federation president with running the state oil company, a key sponsor of last year's European Championship.
Boranbayev became a well-known name in Kazakhstan when he ran KazRosGaz, a cross-border cooperation between Gazprom and the Kazakh national gas company, from 2006-14. Since then, he has built a property and entertainment empire including luxury hotels, a shopping mall and a string of fitness clubs.
Boranbayev's main achievement in soccer so far has been to revive Kairat Almaty, which was once able to fight for Soviet titles but was starved of funds and struggling when he took over. Kairat Almaty isn't named after Kairat Boranbayev -- the name means "strength" or "energy" in the Kazakh language.
In the last two seasons, Kairat finished second in the league behind FC Astana, which became the first Kazakh club to play in the group stage of the Champions League in 2015.
Boranbayev said his emphasis is on youth development and that his wealth doesn't mean Kairat will be another flash-in-the-pan wonder in an ex-Soviet country like Anzhi Makhachkala, which signed foreign stars like Samuel Eto'o before the owner pulled funds and club was relegated. Young players at Kairat are put through a rigorous educational program, Boranbayev said.
"First of all, we have to raise a person who's worthy of our society," he said. "If a child isn't learning well, we suspend him from training. If he doesn't enter university, we drop him from the team."