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Football: Oil boom fuels rise of football in Azerbaijan

16 august 2013, 12:04
0
John Toshack. ©REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
John Toshack. ©REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
For a manager who has coached at Europe's most successful club, signing up at a provincial Azerbaijani football team might not seem a likely career move, AFP reports.

After a conversation with the billionaire owner of Azerbaijan's Khazar lankaran, however, former Real Madrid coach John Toshack says that he was convinced enough to take the plunge earlier this year.

"I am the sort of person who is always ready for a new challenge and so I said, 'why not?'" Toshack, who has also coached the Wales national team and played for Liverpool, told AFP.

Few football fans outside the oil-rich former Soviet state would likely be able to point out on a map lankaran -- a town of just over 80,000 on the Caspian Sea -- or know much about Azerbaijan and the state of the game in the country.

Buoyed by billions of dollars in oil revenues, over the past decade Azerbaijan has seen an economic boom under the authoritarian rule of strongman President Ilham Aliyev that has seen ritzy skyscrapers shoot up in the capital city Baku and the country play host to events such as the Eurovision song contest.

Now, football seems to be catching up.


--- 'I was surprised in a good way' ---


Owned by Azeri-Turkish shipping magnate Mubariz Mansimov -- who served as a Soviet-era intelligence officer and is also known by his adopted Turkish surname Gurbanoglu -- Khazar lankaran is one of the clubs leading the way.

The current squad has a smattering of South Americans and Spaniards and the club was linked to a mega-bucks contract offer for former Arsenal winger and Russia captain Andrey Arshavin last season -- although officials there say it was all just rumours.

"When I got here I was really surprised in a good way about the level of football in Azerbaijan," says Toshack. "In our team we've got some pretty top-class players."

Khazar lankaran is not the only team that has significant financial backing.

Current champions Neftci Baku are supported by state oil and gas giant SOCAR, which earlier this year became one of UEFA's major sponsors.

Across town, FC Baku are backed by Hafiz Mammadov, the founder of a business group with interests in sectors from oil to transport, who also has links to French club Lens and Spanish side Atletico Madrid.

Elsewhere, Gabala FC in central Azerbaijan is run by the sons of one of the country's richest and most powerful politicians and boasted former Arsenal defensive legend Tony Adams as coach a few years back.

This has all seen Azerbaijan touted as the next former Soviet state that could have an impact on the European stage.

Last season, Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk -- owned by multi-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov -- won plaudits as it reached the latter stages of the Champions League.

For the time being, Azerbaijani football still has a long way to go and although facilities have improved, matches are often played in front of miniscule crowds.

This year only one team is still involved in European qualifiers, Karabakh, and Khazar lankaran was thrashed 10-0 on aggregate by Israeli club Maccabi Haifa in Europa League qualifying.

"In Europe there are clubs with budgets of 200 to 300 million euros ($270 million to $400 million) which still struggle to win anything," says Tuygun Nadirov, Khazar lankaran's vice-president.

"In Azerbaijan the club budgets do not yet reach over 20 or 30 million.

"I think a time will come though when the level of our football will be high and star footballers won't have any doubts about coming here."

One of the foreign players who has already made the move is Brazilian Flavio Beck -- a journeyman midfielder who came to Baku side Inter after stints in a series of minor European leagues.

"My agent told me that there are some good teams in Azerbaijan and I said of course it is possible to play there and I came without problem," the South American player said.

"Baku is a beautiful city, the people here are normal but I spend most of my time at home with my family."


--- 'There were no proper stadiums' ---


While the level of some of the foreign imports may not yet be high enough, for local players football in Azerbaijan is unrecognisable from where it was a few years ago.

"In Azerbaijan a few years ago there weren't even proper stadiums," says national team striker Vagif Javadov, who also plays for Inter Baku.

"Now pretty much every team has its own stadium."

Experts say that while the change is evident fans may soon be demanding more return for the money the clubs are pouring into the game.

"It could be argued that with the amount of money being invested we would want to have greater development," says Ikhtiyar Asgarov, who runs football website Apasport.

"However much we might wish it, in the next few years it's impossible to imagine our teams reaching the latter stages of the Champions League."

As for Welshman Toshack, lankaran may be a far cry from the famous arenas like Santiago Bernabeu or Anfield that he has worked in before but when the football starts it will be business as usual.

"Despite the fact that lankaran is very different from places I've been before, I don't see myself having a problem settling in," he says.

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