Tales from the football frontline: Qarabag, Azerbaijan

The leafy Baku settlement of Suraxani sits at the thick end of Azerbaijan’s Abseron Peninsula. Like the majority of neighbourhoods in the capital, this is not a wealthy place – the decaying vestiges of the country’s Soviet-era petrochemical industry bearing witness to a forgotten urban relic. The Caspian Sea, from which the state extracts its vast mineral wealth, is not much more than 10km away. The petro dollars, though, don’t roll this far downtown.

The short road from central Baku passes a school where children – perhaps as many as 15 of them – play football on the forecourt with an empty coke bottle. Dust kicks up waist-high as they chase and harry one another across the concrete.

The Azersun Arena reveals itself only from up close, so carefully has it been tucked away amongst the creaking bones of this town. My first experience of the stadium is via the back entrance, the single door behind a single security guard that welcomes the press on matchdays. Inside, the grubby streets of Suraxani give way to the lush, white-tiled corridors of what is an impressively neat architectural job. This is the home of FK Qarabag, champions of Azerbaijan.

Ron-oconnor

Champions, in fact, three seasons running – and counting. Tonight, February 27th 2017, they play Inter Baku in the Premyar Liqa, looking to regain top spot from title challengers Qabala, who drew earlier in the day. It’s a crisp evening on the outskirts of Azerbaijan’s capital, and the daylight clings on long enough to see us into the second half without contribution from the floodlights.

Once the lights do flicker on, shortly after half-time, the pattern of the game has long been established. Inter, third in the table but realistically out of the title race, have come here for a draw. They play five at the back, four in midfield, and are ferociously disciplined in keeping their shape. “It’s what Inter have done all season” explains Habib, a local reporter for Azerbaijan’s Football+. “People don’t like it but it’s what they’re good at. Tonight, they have stopped the game, stopped Qarabag from playing”.

Inter’s timidity is understandable. Qarabag won the title by 12 points last season and are comfortably the most well-resourced club in the country, thanks to a sponsorship deal with food processing giant Azersun. They are also Azerbaijan’s most successful European export, having competed in the Europa League group stage in each of the last three seasons.

azersun-arena

Qarabag are no also-rans in Europe. In 2014 they were denied a famous win over Inter Milan and with it progression to the knock-out stages by a last-minute disallowed goal in Baku, and in December last year Fiorentina were pushed all the way before the Italians’ Federico Chiesa broke Qarabag hearts with the winning goal in a tie that ended 2-1.

The holy grail for Qarabag, though, remains the Champions League. This season was the closest they have come to reaching the group stage, conceding an 85th minute goal to Viktoria Plzen in the second leg in Baku to crash out on away goals at the third qualifying round. As with many clubs – especially from smaller footballing countries – Europe is becoming an obsession for Qarabag. But they have their own, unique reasons for wanting to put their name on the map.

Baku is not Qarabag’s natural home. In 1993 they were forced to flee their home town of Aghdam, one of the focal points of the Nagorno-Karabakh war fought between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia. Following years of heavy shelling from Armenian military forces, Aghdam was abandoned by its residents in July 1993, as the conflict reached its peak.

Though the sides agreed a ceasefire in 1994, the conflict remains unresolved. Azerbaijan continues to claim Nagorno-Karabakh as its own, though the territory is de facto self-governing with financial and military support from Armenia. Of the 40,000 or so ethnic Azeri refugees who fled Aghdam, none have been able to return. Today the city is a ghost town, its crumbling remains being slowly reclaimed by nature.

Nurlan Ibrahimov is Qarabag’s press officer. He says: “Qarabag is how we remind the world of what happened at Aghdam. What we do as a club helps keep the problem alive in the eyes of the world. That’s why it is important for us to play in Europe, to represent Azerbaijan and to represent the people of Aghdam”.

After leaving Aghdam the club drifted from stadium to stadium, city to city, rootless and with scarcely the means to support themselves in professional football. Then, in 2001, the club became attached to Azersun, having been deemed by Azerbaijan’s former president Heydar Aliyev to be too culturally important to be allowed the risk of dissolution. The ensuing domestic success has paved the way for the club to reach for the international recognition it craves.

Our land is occupied” says Nurlan, “and until that is resolved we have to do what we can to keep our story alive. We need exposure”.

The influence of Azersun can be seen in a hundred different ways here. In addition to the 5,200-seater stadium erected two years ago, there is a combined training and administrative complex adjacent to the ground from where Qarabag’s operation is orchestrated. The set-up is modern and runs with a calm efficiency, with the club currently maintaining a neat equilibrium between its future and its past.

That past is represented by clutch of personnel from the pre-war period. Former striker Musviq Kuseynov was an idol in his playing days, and today acts as head coach Gurban Gurbanov’s number two. Similarly, Shahid Kasanov captained the side in their final season before exile, and now holds administrative duties at the Azersun Arena. Vuqar Nadirov, once a child refugee from Aghdam, leads the attack for Qarabag and is one of Azerbaijan’s most-capped internationals.

Qarabag lose tonight, 1-0, thanks to a late strike from former Blackburn Rovers defender Zurab Khizanishvili. Inter’s compact defensive game has successfully suffocated the life from the champions. With eight games to go after this, it’s likely that the title race with Qabala will go down to the wire. If they are successful then this summer they will get another shot at reaching the Champions League, and putting the Qarabag name up in lights around Europe. The desire to do so will burn as strong as ever.

✏️️  Robert O'Connor. Robert is currently writing a book on the effects of football in former European warzones. He's a regular Glory contributor, and you can read more of his work in our Kosovo issue.