Images created by Patrick Caskie.
Land of Fire, Football, Dolma, and the Aliyev’s. It doesn’t quite have the ring I thought it would. Despite the alliteration, Football is the odd one out, not deserving of a place amongst the icons of Azerbaijan. In fact, Football doesn’t even sit head of the table when it comes to sports in this nation, that honour bestowed to Wrestling. Despite Covid-related league postponements and the realities of war, this year, the Azeri Premier League has a title race, a statement you couldn’t say for at least the past five years.
Azerbaijan rarely makes the pages of western news sites; if it does, its for all the wrong reasons, with reporting corruption and conflict exclusive. Whatever your stance regarding the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict, you must admit that Azeri Football has lately been in the healthiest and prosperous state since it regained sovereignty in 1991. Maintaining and improving on this increasingly solid ground is of the utmost importance as Azerbaijan’s clubs falling victim to mismanagement and insolvency is far too familiar. Xezer Lenkeran, FC Baku, and Kapaz PFK have all sat at the summit of Azeri Football before painful, financial induced disembarkment. My optimism about Football in the south Caucasus nation may be borderline assinine; however, after my five years in the capital, Baku, I believe in the product. My belief is not untenable; Qarabag FK have become mainstays of European group stage football, UCL or UEL. Stoic performances home and away against Atletico remain fresh in the memory of football fans nationwide. When it comes to these rare European glamour ties, unlike many countries, supporters of all clubs rally around the representative, it doesn’t feel like Qarbag or Neftci versus the opponent rather, Azerbaijan vs the opponent. With the matches streamed on YouTube and a title-race at last, this season, if ever, should be the one you follow Azeri Football.
We are 17 game weeks into the season, with 11 to go. Qarabag, like many of Azerbaijan’s citizens, are internally displaced, one of the few clubs in world football that are forced into such unfortunate circumstances. The club hales from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, as the name suggests, however as a result of constant dispute and conflict, they were forced to relocate in 1993 to Baku. The horsemen have become the pre-eminent kings of Azeri Football, dominating the 2010s. They currently sit level on eight titles with the historical powerhouse of Azerbaijan, Neftci Baku. This season provides an opportunity for a battle between footballing heritage and the modern machine. Both squads are an exciting cocktail of up-and-coming Azeri talent, journeyed professionals, and European Footballs misfits. Beyond these two, its a mishmash of newly-established clubs mainly from the many districts of Baku. The most appropriate explanation of the makeup of Azerbaijani Football is that Michael Essien, a behemoth of world Football when at Sabail, lined up with and against domestic players who could only dream of a pay-packet a tenth of his.
The contemporary title race is a three-way affair. However, the third club Zira FK are akin to a reliant robin drag racing with supercars. As a result, they will most likely see them fall off shortly. Their financial backing is minuscule compared to the other two. Yet a third-place finish would guarantee them European qualification, and if done successfully, could provide a springboard to the upper echelons of the game. Qarabag and Neftci have been trading pole position like a game of musical chairs, with neither yet to make a convincing claim for the title. A wild faceoff between the two in February saw Neftci come out victorious 2-1, despite ending the game with just eight players.
The culmination of the season should bring further moments of madness and brilliance that are exclusive to this part of the world. A betting man would back Qarbag to finish atop the table; they’ve done so for the past seven years; however, we have seen continent-wide, clubs fumble unprecedented streaks. To further their case, Qarabag also has the premier Azeri talent amongst their ranks, Mahir Emreli. The forward has been atop the goal charts for as long as he been at Qarabag, with a move to shores nearer to you appearing imminent.
However, Neftci does not have a shortage of talent; Anton Krivotsyuk and Namiq Alasgarov are established stars who similarly may not stay in their homeland in the coming years. The next and final meeting of the two occurs on the final day of the season; if neither of them blinks before it, this will be a must-watch. The quality of Football may not rival its peers; however, the Azerbaijani Premier League’s title race is dynamic, exciting, and unique.
Azeri football fans have been starved of a tense campaign, so it is only appropriate after such a tumultuous year for the nation that the citizens are rewarded with a title race. A title for Neftci could reinstate their claim to be the premier club in the country; however, a win for Qarabag could be the greatest house-warming gift, as it seems increasingly likely that the club once again may be able to play in their hometown, as Azerbaijan has taken back control of their hometown, Agdam. With games streamed on YouTube and played during the UK’s early afternoon, there is ample reason for you to give the Azerbaijan Premier League a go.