In September, along with Wembley, Baku was chosen as a venue for Euro 2020. That’s Baku, capital of Azerbajian. Oil-rich Baku is building a new 68,000-capacity stadium – just as it built a new arena to host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. But beyond the petrodollars, Baku has a footnote in football history – and a role in its future. Both past and present are personified by unsung Qarabag’s current run in the Europa League. Their home ground? Baku’s Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, named after the game’s most famous linesman.
First the Olympics, then the Eurovision Song Contest and now Euro 2020. Baku, capital of energy-rich Azerbaijan, has ideas way above its location, on the edge of the Caspian Sea, nearer to Nepal than Vienna.
If Michel Platini described Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland as a ‘complicated adventure’, then he may be reaching for his thesaurus when it comes to Baku.
Shortly before Euro 2012 kicked off, Baku staged Europe’s annual TV pop festival and just failed to make a short list of three candidate cities for the 2020 Olympics.
Now this former outpost of the Soviet Union has just been awarded hosting rights of Euro 2020.
What it lacks in football pedigree, Azerbaijan makes up for in one vital factor: manats.
Whether it’s in dollars, roubles or the local currency of Azeri new manats, Azerbaijan makes moolah hand over fist. Specifically SOCAR, the state-owned oil-and-gas company, said to make £19 billion year, or £52 million a day.
It’s SOCAR who are building the new Olympic Stadium, by the lake of Boyuk Shor, north-east of the city centre. With a capacity of 68,700, it will replace the previous national stadium, named after the only Azeri to make his mark in football history.
Or rather give his signal. In the split second that made him the game’s most famous linesman, Tofik Bakhramov demonstrably indicated that a shot from Geoff Hurst had crossed the line in the 100th minute of the 1966 World Cup Final.
Bakhramov died in Baku in 1993. A few months afterwards, former local KGB chief Heydar Aliyev came to power. Made prominent and rich when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, Aliyev took a back seat under Gorbachëv but regained importance after Azeri independence in 1991.
A leading figure in the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia, Aliyev built an autocratic system in which family members and select heads of key clans became absurdly wealthy on oil and gas revenues. His son, current president Ilham, succeeded him as dynastic leader ten years after Aliyev senior became leader.
Since 2003, Baku has been transformed from Caspian backwater to a post-Soviet Dubai, gleaming office towers and five-star hotels dominating the skyline.
Moneyed Azeris, such as soccer-mad Hafiz Mammadov, have capriciously blown fortunes on football from Azerbaijan to Portugal. The long-term owner of Baku FC, city rivals of long-established Neftchi (‘Oil’) Baku, Mammadov moved into Europe to purchase shares in Porto and Atlético Madrid – whose shirts promote Azerbaijan, ‘Land of Fire’.
In 2013, Mammadov bought RC Lens, the populist French champions of 1998 regaining promotion in May 2014.
Soon afterwards came the news that the oil-rich Azeri had bought Sheffield Wednesday from another old fox from Eastern Europe, Milan Mandaric. The dotted line just needed signing.
But it wasn’t long before the wheels began to come off Mammadov’s wagon. First, stories surfaced in the Russian-language press that Baku FC’s players hadn’t been paid in months. Then Lens fans, never a timid bunch, began to question why no money had been invested in new players, despite the club’s step up to the top flight.
For the time being, Mammadov has managed to convince France’s football authorities that he has the wherewithal to back Lens – though Les Sang et Or have hardly set the league alight since.
Meanwhile, even Mandaric, charged with tax evasion in 2009, drew the line at Mammadov. ‘Unfortunately,’ he addressed Wednesday supporters in September, ‘…Mr Mammadov has not been able to meet the obligations set out in the contract for either the purchase of the shares of the sponsorship arrangements. Whilst I hope that Mr Mammadov will very quickly overcome his difficulties in Azerbaijan…’
The French press has also been trying to throw light on this little-known associate of Azerbaijan’s president, his obsession with Swiss watches, his 18 bodyguards and five blacked-out Mercedes. Not to mention the default in December 2013 of his company, the Baghlan Group, of $19 million, agreed to be repaid on a quarterly basis.
Another Azeri clan, the Heydarovs, have poured billions into developing their powerbase of provincial Qabala. Located 200km inland from Baku, close to the Russian border, Qabala is where high-ranking minister Kamaladdin Heydarov has built the Heydar Aliyev Museum and a five-star resort hotel.
Meanwhile the heir to the family millions, Tale, a former student of the London School of Economics, has poured a near fortune into the local football club.
Bringing in Tony Adams as coach in 2010, Heydarov Jr is also financing a new 15,000-capacity stadium and training centre. Under renowned Russian coach Yuri Semin, Qabala lost the 2014 cup final on penalties to Neftchi and finished third in the league, the highest since the club was reformed in 2005.
Semin has since been replaced by Dorinel Munteanu, whose Qabala side went out in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.
While Qabala and Neftchi regularly flop in Europe, Qarabag provide a shining example of how an Azeri club can succeed. Owned by the head of Azersun, Abdulbari Gözel, a one-man success story of modern-day Azerbaijan, Qarabag are based at Baku’s Tofik Bakhramov Stadium.
Forced by war to move from their base in Aghdam, Nagorno-Karabakh – their Imarat Stadium was bombed to rubble – Qarabag have been coached since 2008 by Gurban Gurbanov, still the record goalscorer for the Azeri national side.
League champions in 2014, Gurbanov’s Qarabag have won nearly 20 games in European competition. Opposition vanquished in the shadow of Bakhramov’s pointing statue includes current Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg and Bruges, and, also beaten on aggregate, Wisla Kraków and Rosenborg Trondheim.
Qarabag’s current campaign has been their most successful. After a play-off win over Twente Enschede to reach the group stages of the Europa League, Qarabag have hardly been disgraced in decent company.
Starting with a creditable 0-0 home draw with Saint-Étienne, then most recently holding Inter to a 1-0 lead for most of the game at the San Siro, Gurbanov’s team of mainly Azeri talent now takes on Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Six points from Kiev and the Tofik Bakhramov and who knows? Maybe Azerbaijan, whose national side recently lost 6-0 to Croatia in a Euro 2016 qualifier, will become more known for its achievements on the pitch rather than any flag-waving historic footnote or high-level schmoozing.