As featured on Guardian Sport
FAR AWAY FROM the headline-dominating transfers of Luis Suárez to Barcelona and James Rodríguez to Real Madrid, the Azerbaijani capital of Baku has enjoyed its own back-page delight during the summer months of 2014. Qarabag Agdam FK managed to see off Maltese champions Valletta 5-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, registering their maiden triumph in Europe’s elite club competition in the process.
They went one better last week, when they welcomed Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg to Azerbaijan for the first leg of their third qualifying round and defeated them 2-1, despite having two men sent off. Qarabag are now just one match away from reaching the Champions League play-offs, where they would compete for a place in the lucrative group stages.
The reigning kings of Azerbaijani football are not entirely alien to European football. They have ventured into the preliminary stages of the Europa League, the Intertoto Cup and the Cup Winner’s Cup several times, but their run in the Champions League is special for a club who have seen it all and live to tell the story.
Their victories over Valletta and Red Bull Salzburg, as with every other moment of triumph for the club, bear the painful scars of a club in exile. Based in Baku, the capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, the club long to return to Agdam where they would have the comfort of playing in their birthplace. Unfortunately, that remains a pipe dream for a club who have felt the turmoil of war.
Set against the backdrop of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, Qarabag regularly played inside a packed Imaret Stadium in Agdam as they sought to establish themselves in European football. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. In 1993, the Imaret Stadium was occupied and subsequently bombed by Karabakh-Armenian forces. There are fairy tales aplenty in football but this particular enclave in south-western Azerbaijan was to experience only horror and urban decimation.
In the early 1990s thousands died across the Nagorno-Karabakh region in brutal ethnic battles as the countries that separated from the collapse of the Soviet Union began to feel the ripple effect of a broken empire. Agdam was not spared. The population of a once bustling regional province, renowned for its bread museum, fled and left Agdam the way it can be seen today: the world’s largest ghost town.
Qarabag could easily adopt Barcelona’s més que un club motto, as they stand gallantly as the descendants of a great tragedy, simultaneously symbolising hope and pride. The club are a poignant reminder of how war torments and ravages civilisation but ceases to kill the spirit.
Succeeding in football is scant consolation for the loss of life, identity and home, but it still stands as an outlet for rebuilding. When Qarabag turn out in Baku for their home matches, they are carrying with them the spirit of the refugees who are scattered throughout Azerbaijan as a result of the conflict. Given the minor status of the Azerbaijan Premier League, the Champions League, and European football in general, gives the club and the cause a greater focus. They are clearly determined to make the most of the opportunity.
Qarabag recently returned to the summit of Azerbaijani football, claiming their second Premier League title this year after seeing off the challenge of Inter Baku. The Horsemen have the unique distinction of being the only non-Baku club to win the league. Last season’s success was a watershed moment for the club, claiming their first league title since 1993, when the war’s violence reached disastrous proportions.
That league title in 1993 was inevitably overshadowed by news of the devastation transpiring back home in Agdam, with the squad’s friends and families being displaced as troops stepped up their occupation. Only two months had passed between the relocation of Qarabag and the destruction of their stadium. The glorious achievement of 2014 will not be viewed under the lens of war; it was a conquest liberated from that crippling association.
In recent years Qarabag have managed to rise above financial crisis to become a dominant force in Azerbaijan’s top tier as well as a regular fixture in the Europa League, and now Champions League. They continue with their struggle of building a football scene knowing that their true home in Agdam lies in decay, a forgotten wasteland reduced to rubble and ruin.
The team suffered great losses during the war. Former coach and player Allahverdi Bagirov went on to become a respected army commander, saving many people during the Khojali Massacre. War reporter Emin Eminbeyli recalled: “Extraordinary events took place as prisoners were exchanged. Allahverdi Bagirov embraced one of the Armenian prisoners and, looking straight to the camera, said that that man, for many years, had been a team-mate of his. At the moment of the exchange, the Armenian soldier told Allahverdi he hoped never to be on opposite fronts with him again.”
Bagirov’s life was taken by an anti-tank mine on 12 June 1992. He become a national hero. Upon learning about his death, an Armenian commander contacted Azerbaijani soldiers on the radio, asking them to confirm the news and cursing them: “How could you not save such a man?” The memory of people associated with the club live on through the football they play today and the players continue to dedicate success to former heroes. Until recent years Qarabag sent an old city bus from Baku to the refugee settlements close to the frontline every week to take supporters to their games.
They won the national cup and qualified for the very first edition of the Europa League in the 2009-10 season. In anticipation of their encounter with Rosenborg, Qarabag asked Uefa if they could hold a minute of silence before kick-off. The match was to take place on 23 July 2009, exactly 16 years after soldiers captured Agdam. When Uefa discovered that the moment of silence was being held to honour the victims of war, they vetoed the tribute.
In 2010-11, the club defeated Wisla Krakow and then faced Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League. Qarabag were overcome by the occasion and lost 4-0 in the Westfalenstadion. Their evening was worsened when the visitors had to ask for the removal of an Armenian flag in the vast 30,000-capacity Sudtribune stand.
Azerbaijanis and Armenians remain rivals to this day, with bitterness predominantly fuelled by Nagorno-Karabakh. In late 2013, Uefa took the unprecedented step of ordering a redraw for the U19 European Championships qualifiers after the original draw pitted the two young republics together. Critics said Uefa had sidestepped the problem but their decision was understandable as Armenia and Azerbaijan have shown that their relationship remains unmanageable, in football terms anyway.
The pairing of Armenia and Azerbaijan for the qualifiers brought back uncomfortable memories of the last time the sides came out of the hat together for an Under-19 match in autumn 2006. The crowd at that match had stormed the pitch to confront the Azerbaijan team in a disturbance that took police half an hour to subdue.
The tensions from a bitter conflict resurface occasionally but Azerbaijan enjoys a reasonably healthy sporting culture as it continues to grow as a country. The national team are currently 73rd in Fifa’s world rankings, their highest place to date. They are yet to qualify for a major tournament but can be optimistic about their chances for reaching Euro 2016 in France. In a group containing Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria and Malta, Azerbaijan retain an outside chance of finishing third, which would secure their place in a play-off. Berti Vogts, who has been in charge since 2008, has continued his steady progression with the national side after facing a wave of criticism during their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
Of course, football is just one of many popular sports in Azerbaijan. Earlier this year it was announced that Baku would host Formula One’s European Grand Prix in 2016. Azad Rahimov, the country’s minister of sport, said: “Baku will be a spectacular addition to the Formula One calendar. Our location at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and western Asia is a new frontier for Formula One racing. Azerbaijan is a modern European country that has established a reputation as a centre of sporting excellence. The deal to bring Formula One to Baku is a very significant new chapter in our ongoing success to attract the world’s largest sporting events to our country.”
Qarabag’s Champions League adventure now moves to Austria. Goals from Brazilians Danilo Dias and Reynaldo gave Qarabag their unlikely victory at the Tofig Bakhramov Stadium and their fans are desperate for more light to wash away the dark clouds that have hung over their club for so long. A victory against the Austrian moneybags would go down as one of the all-time shocks in recent European football but anything is possible. Just look at the club.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11