Manuel Veth –
Qarabag Agdam have made history on Wednesday night to become the first club from Azerbaijan to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Qarabag completed their run to the group stage with a 2-1 defeat to FC København.
The Azeri side travelled to Denmark with an advantage after they had won the first leg 1-0 at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium thanks to a goal by Mahir Madatov. The 20-year-old Azeri attacking winger had scored for Qarabag in the 25th minute of the first leg in what might go down in history as one of the two greatest goals scored in the history of the club.
The second goal came in the 63rd minute of the second leg. København had scored just before halftime when Federico Santander headed home a freekick curled in from the left-side of the pitch to make it 1-0. It was an unfortunate moment for Qarabag keeper Ibrahim Sehić, who failed to control the box in that instance.
The score was now 1-1 after both legs and København were the better team in the first 45 minutes. The Danish side continued to press needing that second goal to go through to the group stage. Qarabag in the meantime was sitting deep, and they would be the team to score next when left-back Ansi Agolli ran forward and passed the ball off to star striker Dino Ndlovu, who made no mistake to score the tying goal.
The South African forward was highlighted in our Futbolgrad Network preview to this game as the player to watch out for, and the 27-year-old proved us right by scoring the goal that catapulted Qarabag to the group stage of the Champions League. But the job was not quite done at that point as Andrija Pavlović scored in the 66th minute to make it 2-1 on the night for København and 2-2 on aggregate overall.
There is More to Qarabag’s Story
Qarabag, however, still had the advantage of having scored the one away goal and the Azeri side was able to hang on to the scoreline to advance. The match against København will now go down as the biggest milestone in Azeri football.
There is of course more to the story. Qarabag Agdam will always be a memorial of Azerbaijan’s conflict with its neighbour Armenia. The club has its origins in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and Qarabag’s history is a poignant and tragic one, where their European escapes are a welcome highlight on an otherwise dark backdrop. Exiled from their home city of Agdam since 1993 due to the vicious Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they have played their international ‘home’ matches in Baku’s national stadium, named after the infamous moustached linesman in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Today Agdam is an eerie ghost town after its 40,000 population either fled or were killed in a pre-emptive strike by Armenian and Karabakh forces that decimated the city. The team is the only remnant left, and despite relocating to the capital, they have shone brightly in recent years. Their first appearance in Europe came in the first ever staging of the Europa League in 2009-10, while domestically they have dominated the league.
This dominance has been mainly due to the financial aid of the Azeri government. Taher Gozel the Turkish vice president of Azersun, Azerbaijan’s premier food production company, is listed as Qarabag’s vice president.
His company bailed the club out at the turn of the millennium after providing significant sponsorship funds, and continue to broadcast their name across the front of the shirts. He has even appeared on screen, in a documentary promoting Azeri business and in a film due out this year focusing on the team itself. Recently his company build a new 5,800 seat stadium on the outskirts of Baku. The Azersun Arena is, however, deemed too small for international football, and the club will, therefore, play in the national stadium.
Azerbaijan’s Football Image Campaign
The club in exile turned into a UEFA Champions League contender, therefore, makes for an excellent story—at least on the surface. At a second glance, things are not that straight forward. As pointed out in the past by the Futbolgrad Network football has become the primary vehicle for the Caucasus Republic to transport a positive image abroad. The club has in the past sponsored Atlético Madrid as part of their Land of Fire image campaign.
Under the surface, however, Azerbaijan has had a poor human rights record and has been known for silencing critical journalists. Sport and football, in particular, has been used to gloss over the obvious human rights problems in the country. It is, therefore, no surprise that the government of Azerbaijan was quick to react positively about Qarabag, Agdam reaching the group stage of the Champions League.
The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan was quick to point out the political background of Qarabag Agdam’s success in the UEFA Champions League.
— Hikmet Hajiyev (@HikmetHajiyev) August 23, 2017
The Hajiyev also released several other tweets relating to the current status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its military occupation by Armenia. There have been countless stories written about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and while the story of Agdam and the ethnical cleansing of the region by Armenian forces is indeed tragic the war itself is not black and white—for a clearer overview of the topic we suggest the brilliant book black garden by Thomas de Waal.
Qarabag Between War Memorial and Propaganda Tool
Qarabag Agdam would indeed pose a memorial to the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Whether the Azeri government has any interest in truly pursuing that matter is another question, however. Instead, the club will more likely be used to establish a positive image of Azerbaijan abroad and to glance over internal problems within the country.
Whether the foreign press will let them is an entirely different matter—one could only imagine what will happen should Qarabag draw Manchester United in the group stage of the competition. Manchester United’s Armenian star Henrikh Mkhitaryan faced visa problems ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s 2015-16 Europa League group stage match against Qäbälä as the now Manchester United star had travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is deemed an illegal act in Azerbaijan.
Such headlines would, of course, be a rude awakening for the post-Soviet Republic’s image campaign. As for Qarabag, their performance of reaching the Champions League is obviously positive news for the club as well as football in the country and the club with such an extraordinary background story will surely savour any minute of it.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and social media junior editor at Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.