A wave of confidence is sweeping through Azerbaijani football as the country begins to assert itself on the sporting stage
BY OQTAY ATAYEV
When football fans in Azerbaijan tuned into the 2014 UEFA Champions League final, they were struck by a sudden rush of pride. Neither side hailed from the former Soviet republic, of course. Indeed, none of the country’s teams had ever reached the group stage of the competition. But Azerbaijan was front and centre in Lisbon that day – as shirt sponsors of Atlético de Madrid.
For many in Baku and beyond, that must have seemed as close as they would come to a big UEFA Champions League night with an illustrious team like Atlético. How wrong they were. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
That sponsorship deal with the Colchoneros was part of a bid to promote Azerbaijan in the sporting realm. Further afield, the country’s football profile had long been obscure, perhaps barely even considered. It spoke volumes that Azerbaijan’s most famous figure in the game was an assistant referee, Tofiq Bahramov, who validated a controversial goal for England against West Germany in the 1966 FIFA World Cup final.
Bahramov is fondly remembered in his homeland, with the former national team stadium renamed in his honour after his death in 1993. However, as the country gained confidence and wealth from an energy boom around the turn of the century, Azerbaijan felt a growing desire to bolster its pedigree in the sporting sphere. Hence the sight of Diego Costa and Co tackling Real Madrid in Lisbon with ‘Azerbaijan Land of Fire’ on their chests, an arrangement that also took Atleti to Baku to help train young prospects.
It was not an isolated initiative. Local investment in football had been growing for several years, with the number of registered players increasing from 1,500 in 2008 to 17,000 in 2011. “Our young people really love football,” explains Maksim Medvedev, a
Qarabag's players ahead of their 2017 draw away to Atlético Madrid
defender for Azerbaijani side Qarabağ. “All children go outside and start to play football on the street. A lot of new academies have been built and our youngsters want to attend these academies to receive training.”
At the same time, many of the country’s biggest companies were taking ownership of top-flight clubs, developing infrastructure and luring coaches from abroad, such as John Toshack, Yuri Semin and Tony Adams. It was a similar story with the national team, who had contested their first game under former Dinamo Moskva striker Alakbar Mammadov in 1992 and got their maiden win against Georgia the following year. Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto became the first overseas boss in 2005, soon followed by Berti Vogts and Robert Prosinečki.
Nor was Atlético’s run to the UEFA Champions League final Azerbaijan’s first brush with European success. The previous season, Baku heavyweights Neftçi made history by becoming the country’s first club to get to a UEFA competition group stage, grabbing a memorable 2-2 draw away to Inter Milan.
Neftçi had laid down a marker. But they were soon to be eclipsed. Local champions for the last six seasons, Qarabağ have become Azerbaijan’s flag-bearers, developing a reputation as the ‘Barcelona of the Caucasus’ under coach Gurban Gurbanov. “I’ve never thought of our football culture as being less valuable than any other,” says the national side’s record goalscorer, who has turned Qarabağ into the pride of the nation.
"I've never thought of our football culture as being less valuable than any other"
Most notably, the Horsemen broke thrilling new ground by gracing the UEFA Champions League proper in 2017/18. And, perhaps inevitably, they were drawn against – who else? – their old friends Atlético. The wording on a shirt had become the destination for a high-stakes European game. A tough one too, as Qarabağ clinched a landmark 0-0 draw on 18 October 2017, the country’s independence day.
Emin Mahmudov in action for Azerbaijan in the UEFA Nations League
They followed up with an even more impressive 1-1 stalemate in Madrid, yet it was that first draw that truly felt like a coming of age. The performance told its own story, but so too the setting, Qarabağ welcoming their Liga guests to the 70,000-seater Baku Olympic Stadium – a stunning, state-of-the-art venue with luminous outer panels that will be one of the stars of the 2019 UEFA Europa League final. Also selected to stage four games at UEFA EURO 2020, the stadium will only continue to put Azerbaijan on the football map.
The new arena is rightly loaded with symbolism. It replaced Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium as the national team’s home in 2015, and the hope now is a new generation of heroes will emerge to play in it. “It’s very beautiful,” says Medvedev. “The stadium’s lighting already signals that something big is on its way.” With the likes of Qarabağ leaving their mark, and Baku due to host the cream of European club and international football, it would appear so.