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Record breakers? Arkadag FC and the winning streak still under scrutiny

Turkmenistan’s champions lay claim to a world record but some suspect details lie behind their dazzling winning run

John Duerden

Tue 16 Apr 2024 08.00 BST


Record breakers? Arkadag FC and the winning streak still under scrutiny | Football | The Guardian


It’s not often that a football world record goes from Wales to Saudi Arabia only for Turkmenistan to also have a claim. In March, Al-Hilal surpassed the achievement of 27 consecutive top-tier wins set by The New Saints of Wales in 2016. The 18-time Saudi champions have now extended that streak to 34 and look unstoppable at home and abroad.

The same can be said in central Asia where Arkadag FC have won every competitive game in their history. The 2023 league title was lifted in December with 72 points from 24 matches. Throw in seven cup victories and six from six so far this season and it comes to 37 and counting. Yet the world record resides in Riyadh, over a thousand miles to the west.


What gives? “There’s relatively little detail available for the Turkmenistan league, less than we want for the kind of due diligence we carry out in our research for this and similar records,” a spokesperson for Guinness World Records told the Guardian. “This may also be indicative of a level of governance and competition under what we’d ordinarily look for as well. All this being considered, we have confirmed Al-Hilal as the record holder.”


A lack of detail may be down to the fact that Turkmenistan, home to 6.5 million people, is one of the most isolated and secretive countries in the world and, even given the growing importance of the wider region in geopolitical affairs, rarely gets a mention in the western media.

In terms of governance and competition, the way Arkadag were formed may also be an issue. It all started with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan from 2006 to 2022. Berdymukhamedov revelled in his nickname of “Arkadag”, which means “hero protector”. One of his pet projects before he handed the reins of power to his son, Serdar (nominally, at least, as many observers believe father is still pulling the strings), was the foundation of a new city in the south of the country, a smart city that cost upwards of $5bn. A city that, unsurprisingly, is called Arkadag.

Home to more than 70,000 people it needed a football team so, ahead of the 2023 season, the best players in the country joined the newly formed club. National team stalwarts like Arslanmyrat Amanow and Altymyrat Annadurdyyew were soon wearing the shirts designed by Berdymukhamedov which, unsurprisingly given his obsession with the animal, sported a logo of a horse. The league’s transfer window was extended to facilitate this influx.


The rise of Arkadag FC is almost pleasingly nostalgic for anyone who remember the former army and secret police outfits that dominated eastern bloc leagues in the cold war era. Fans of rival clubs may not agree, however, especially as they suspect favourable officiating – such as in a November clash with Sagadam when, with the score at 2-2 going into the final seconds, the new boys were given a controversial penalty and subsequently won. Indeed that game was a rare close affair, with the champions ending the season with a +66 goal difference. So far this season, that margin is +30 after six games.

There are few public complaints as Turkmenistan is not really the place to criticise projects close to the heart of the former president. Guinness World Records misgivings are unlikely to be well received. Berdymukhamedov is known to be keen to get his new city into the storied book in some manner and club officials believe once the team starts competing in Asian competitions, which is scheduled for the summer, then their case for inclusion will be there in black and white for Guinness to see.


Al-Hilal also have state backing, largely owned as they are by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There are also plenty of fans in the country who believe the Blues get the rub of the green when it comes to refereeing decisions. To be fair to the Riyadh giants, they were the most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia in terms of titles – 18 and four respectively – before PIF took charge of them in 2023. This season, however, has been something else – the 34 successive wins has them on course for an unprecedented quadruple.


Last week saw the head coach, Jorge Jesus, and stars such as Rúben Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly (Neymar and Aleksandar Mitrovic are injured) get their hands on trophy No 1 with a 4-1 victory over Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup final. Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr were beaten in the semi-final, a game that saw Cristiano Ronaldo sent off for elbowing the Al-Hilal defender Ali al-Bulaihi.

Al-Hilal are 12 points clear of second-placed Al-Nassr in the Saudi Pro League with seven games to go. League title 19 is incoming. Then there are two semi-finals in April: the King’s Cup, Saudi Arabia’s domestic knockout competition, against Al-Ittihad, and the Asian Champions League clash against Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates. Al-Hilal are favourites to win both and a fifth Asian title would put them two clear of the next two most successful clubs: Pohang Steelers of South Korea and Japan’s Urawa Reds.

Asia is also the next stage for Arkadag. Can they translate their domestic dominance into overseas success? The ambition is certainly there and sooner or later they may well find themselves on the same pitch as Al-Hilal in a game that these two teams won’t be able to both definitely win.

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