Baku, capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan, has emerged from its status as a football backwater. Chosen as one of 12 cities to host finals matches for Euro 2020, elevating it alongside London, Munich and Rome, Baku was quick to build the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, as well as revamp the Tofik Bakhramov.
This was just as well, as in its eagerness to become a global showcase, staging the Grand Prix and the Eurovision Song Contest, Baku also successfully bid to host the 2019 Europa League Final. As fate and a penalty shoot-out would have it, the finalists turned out to be Arsenal and Chelsea.
Baku first witnessed major European club football, back in 2017. Prodigal tenants Qarabag became the first Azeri club to qualify for the Champions League. Representing the city of Aghdam in the war zone of Nagorno-Karabakh, Qarabag were forced to relocate to Baku, where they have played since the 1990s.
While Aghdam was left a bombed-out ghost town, Qarabag based themselves at the former national stadium named after the moustacheo’d linesman who famously (and demonstrably) indicated that a shot from England’s Geoff Hurst had crossed the line in the 100th minute of the 1966 World Cup Final. In doing so, Tofik Bakhramov provided Azerbaijan, then part of the USSR, with an indelible footnote in football history – and a solitary if quirky claim to fame.
That was before Qarabag provided a shining example of how an Azeri club can succeed. Owned by the head of food conglomerate Azersun, Abdulbari Gözel, himself a one-man success story of modern-day Azerbaijan, the four-time Azeri champions from 2014 to 2017 have claimed impressive European scalps. Opposition vanquished at home includes Anderlecht, IFK Gothenburg (3-0!), Red Bull Salzburg, Bruges, and, granting access to the 2017-18 Champions League, FC Copenhagen.
Riding an unprecedented wave of success, Qarabag have also opened their own stadium, the Azersun Arena, at Yeni Surakhani, close to Baku’s airport north-east of town.
Their success means that the Azeri title has gone to the capital 12 times in the last 12 seasons.
Bakhramov himself started out as a player for the city’s flagship club, Neftchi (‘Oil’), around the time the stadium later named after him was being built. Both club and ground have their roots in Stalinism; as an agitator under the code name of Koba, Stalin had caused political unrest among the oil workers in the early 1900s. Neftchi, who still feature a towering derrick on their club crest, were founded as Netftyanik (‘Oil Worker’) at the height of Stalinism in 1937.
Shortly afterwards, work began on a Soviet-style stadium in the area of Ganclik, about 1km north of the main train station. Laid out as a letter C (ie a Russian ‘S’, as in Stalin), it was completed by German prisoners of war and opened in 1951.
Each Soviet republic had one stand-out football club – Azerbaijan had Neftchi. Strangely, like Bakhramov, their most memorable year was 1966, when they finished a highest-ever third in a strong Soviet league. Unlike Bakhramov, however, Neftchi made no mark on the game outside their own borders.
After 1991, all former Soviet republics gained independence and created their own leagues. Azerbaijan was no different – except that it was fighting a terrible war with Armenia.
While the national side relocated, mainly, to Trabzon in Turkey, Neftchi won the inaugural domestic title in 1992.
Neftchi meanwhile, moved out of the Tofik Bakhramov to the new Bakcell Arena in 2012. Set in Nizami, near Xalqlar Dostlugu metro station halfway out to the airport, it holds 15,000 and is also brought into use for national duty. By chance, 2012-13 proved the club’s last hoorah before Qarabag domination. As well as winning the title for the last time, Neftchi became the first Azeri club to qualify for the group stage of a European competition, drawing at the San Siro with Inter. At the Tofik Bakhramov, later Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring for the Milan side.
Until recently, the second club in the capital was FC Baku. Bearing the landmark Maiden’s Tower on their badge, Baki Futbol Klubu were formed after the Nagorno-Karabakh War and have suffered the capricious promises of controversial owner Hafiz Mammadov. The man responsible for the ‘Land of Fire’ sponsorship on the shirts of Atlético Madrid, Mammadov moved FC Baku out of the Tofik Bakhramov – only to have the club play at their training ground since 2012. In 2015, they were relegated. In 2016, they turned amateur.
By contrast, Inter Baku eclipsed the other clubs from the capital to put in the strongest challenge to Qarabag’s recent hegemony. Runners-up in 2014 and 2015, Inter also won the league in 2008 and 2010. In 2015-16, they pushed Athletic Bilbao pretty close in the Europa League. Against a background of financial uncertainty, Inter Baku became Keshla in October 2017, but domestic form has barely improved. In 2019, they should have been relegated but second-tier champions MOIK Baku failed to gain a licence for top-flight football.
EU and US nationals require a visa to enter Azerbaijan. The system has at last been simplified and digitalised, with online applications easily arranged for 30-day stays. The e-visa is issued within three working days and costs $20 plus a $3 service fee. Other visas require longer and cost more.
Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport is 20km (12 miles) north-east of the city centre. The Aero Express bus leaves on the hour and half-hour (hourly 9pm-6am) to the metro station 28 May, where the city’s two main red and green lines meet. From there, it’s an easy hop to the Olympic Stadium at Koroglu, the Tofik Bakhramov Stadium at Ganclik, downtown seafront Sahil and the Old Town stop of Içerisheher. Journey time to 28 Maya is 30min, though it can take 45min during rush hour. Note that station names can be given in slightly different English versions.
The bus operates on the same Baku Card system as the metro. At the airport, the bus costs 1.50AZN/€0.75 from the kiosk near the exit of Terminal 1, cash only, in small denominations of local currency. In town, the Baku Card is 2AZN/€1, with each journey costing 0.20AZN/€0.10, available from machines at stations. Even cheaper is the Baku Card for limited use (0.20AZN/€0.10, as shown on the English-language touch screen), which you can charge for up to four journeys (4 gedis), each one 0.20AZN/€0.10. Buses also work on the same system.
A taxi from the airport should cost around 25AZN/€12.50). Always agree the fee beforehand. A taxi only as far as the Olympic Stadium should be under half that.
An average taxi journey across town in a London-style cab should cost around 7AZN/€3.50. To phone one, call centrally located 189 Taxi (+994 12 565 31 89).
All the main international chains have set up in Baku. These include the Hilton by the seafront, the Fairmont near the iconic Flame Towers and the Park Inn near the train station. The JW Marriott Absheron is another high-end choice – Baku being an energy-fuelled economy, hotel rates and restaurants are cripplingly expensive.
Cheaper places tend to be found in the Old Town – dotted with affordable guesthouses of varying degrees of quality. For something more central, near Narimanov metro, one stop from Ganclik, the Premier Expo is comfortable and usually reasonably affordable.
To stay in the centrally located bar quarter, the Du Port Hotel is an 18-room home from home, and even has its own pub/restaurant with a large-screen TV and billiard room. Close by, on the other side of Molokan Gardens, quieter Theatrum is more upscale, though five-star might be pushing it a bit.
For a Muslim country, an awful lot of beer – much of it local Xirdalan or Turkish Efes – flows in Baku. Wine, though, is insanely expensive. Do note that, as an ex-Soviet regional capital full of foreigners on oil wages, a red-light trade goes with the territory. Pool is another major feature – almost every bar has a table and local leagues are taken seriously.
The main bar hub, close to focal Fountains Square, is where the streets of Alizade and Tarlan Aliyarbayov intersect. There you’ll find the long-established expat hubs of Finnegans and Shakespeare, with all the trappings including TV football. Corner bar Otto is another old favourite. Other expat-friendly options include Shamrock and the neighbouring Hairy Lemon on Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev and, liveliest of the lot, the memorabilia-decked Hops Pub Baku on Tarlan Aliyarbayov. There you’ll also find the Compass West pub and the excellent Tortuga, closer to Fountains Square.
The Red Lion Pub on Bulbul Avenue was particularly busy in the build-up to the Europa League final and generally provides a rowdier experience for match-watching, while the London Pub and Top Beer on Yusif Mammadaliyev are more about a quiet pint as you take in the game. Further up, on the corner of Mardanov and Bashir Seferoglu Kücesi, the Koleso is another screen-equipped hostelry, with Stara Praga beer on tap. Just over the road, the Sport Pub Beer Dad ticks most boxes.
Suitably named The Green overlooks the fountain of Favvaralar Meydani, just off Nigar Rafibeyli, where terrace seating allows for a nice change of pace.
If you’d rather try out a locals’ bar, the 3 Bochki (Dilara Aliyeva 251) near the train station/28 Maya is an honest, wooden cabin of a pub with a variety of beers and TV sports. It does food too – and all is inexpensive. The Arena Sports Bar is on the same street at No.204, close to the stop for the airport bus.