Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov likes to remind his countrymen that the development of sport is a national priority. You might think then that sports would be comprehensively covered in the servile local press, and yet there was barely any news of the country's performance at the football Commonwealth of Independent States Cup that ended January 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
That may, alas, have been due to the fact Turkmenistan placed last out of the 12 national teams taking part.
The 20th edition of the under-21 competition, which pits several former Soviet nations (and Iran in this edition) against one another, was subject of some unusual international attention. Both FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini turned up to watch.
Turkmenistan started well by beating Estonia 1-0, and sure enough we learned all about it in great detail on the local news. Government mouthpiece daily Neutral Turkmenistan trumpeted the achievement, as did the Vatan television program, which is normally dedicated almost entirely to hailing the president's accomplishments.
National youth team coach Bayramdurdy Durdyev enthused about his players in the post-match press conference, saying, "they are great."
Then things began going downhill. Kazakhstan handily brushed aside the Turkmen team 3-1. And finally, a 0-0 tie against Russia denied the team qualification into the quarterfinals.
These performances were greeted by a stony silence in local media at home.
Matters only got worse in the games for the ninth to 12th positions: Turkmenistan lost 3-1 to Kyrgyzstan, 3-0 to Estonia and managed only a 1-1 draw against Tajikistan, earning the beleaguered Turkmens the wooden spoon.
In an apparent attempt to avoid the wrath of top officials, Turkmen Sporty, the country's only sports newspaper, decided not to publish those results, which clearly went against the spirit of normally superlative-heavy descriptions of Berdymukhamedov's policy triumphs.
The 24-hour sports channel that began airing on January 1, 2012, as part of Berdymukhamedov's plan to "promote healthy lifestyles, increase the popularity of sport among young people and raise Turkmen sport to international standards," also failed to report on the games.
Non-Turkmen journalists reporting on the CIS Cup were able to extract quite forthright assessments from coach Durdyev after his team's defeat to Kyrgyzstan, however: "My footballers just aren't ready to play at full-strength for the entire duration of the game. We lack strong players."