Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
AZERI PREMYER LIQASİ RESULTS: Sat 13 Feb Olimpik Bakı 2-0 Standard Bakı, Karvan Evlakh 0-1 Neftçi Bakı, FK Bakı 2-0 Qäbälä, Turan 1-0 Muğan Salyan, Khazar Lankaran 0-0 Qarabağ Agdam, İnter Bakı 2-1 Simurq
Salam eleykim from the Land of Fire.
Before a disgruntled minority begin choking on their tea, that wasn’t an attempt at writing in “northern.”
Despite the hostile-sounding sobriquet, the blog isn't back in its old stomping ground of Kingston-upon-Hull on a Friday night.
This week the NMTB bandwagon has arrived in Azerbaijan.
But, much like a walk through ‘Ull city centre of an evening, the blog needs a bullet-proof vest and tin hat to venture outside.
It’s come to the periphery of a frozen conflict zone to meet the Premyer Liqası’s refugees and everybody’s second favourite team, Qarabağ Agdam, who have returned home, well, nearly, 17 years after fleeing an Armenian invasion.
Probably still be safer than Hull...
First off, unless your Caucasus history is up to scratch, you’ve probably never heard of the Stallions or Nagorno-Karabakh, so NMTB will take off its tin hat momentarily and replace it with its history one to whisk you back to the 1980s; to a decade of Margaret Thatcher, the Chernobyl Disaster and massive shoulder-pads.
It was also a time when the fissures in the Soviet Union’s constitution came to the fore.
Qarabağ were founded in, funnily enough, Agdam, a city trumped only by New Orleans for its poor location.
Once a bustling metropolis of 100,000, Agdam was situated adjacent to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region presented to the AzSSR in 1921 at the expense of its hapless neighbours Armenia by those pleasant chappies in the Kremlin.
It wasn’t quite the compensation Baku coveted for the Red Army overrunning their entire country a year earlier, and the gift was almost certain to become a future source of discontent.
Historically the Caucuses had always been a rough-and-ready outpost of the Russian empire, so when communism went ***-up in the 80s everything went f***ing mental.
Thirty-thousand people died and 800,000 fled when marauding Armenian troops hopped over the border in 1988, eventually conquering Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs during the six-year conflict.
Agdam unwittingly found itself in the buffer zone Armenia created to protect its spoils of war, and razed the city to the ground.
Today it’s an eerie ghost town of dilapidated buildings with a post-apocalyptic skyline. Not like Hull, then. (See pics here)
Some twerps enjoy visiting these kind of places, just to say they have.
It’s somewhere a bit different, a bit dangerous, which is fine if doing frig-all bar dodging bullets and kidnappings is your thing.
Qarabağ fled to the Azeri capital Baku in 1993, poignantly winning the Premyer Liqası in their new home, but success was fleeting and in many ways the club’s fortunes mirrored that of their fellow refugees.
Financial problems beset the Stallions and almost forced them into liquidation, until 2004 when they were purchased by a “food holding company” by the name of Azersun, whatever they do.
Azersun b(r)ought success, or maybe the canteen stocked Lucozade because Qarabağ were transformed into a half decent side again, even though they were playing in front of crowds that rarely troubled the 500 mark, with the lion’s share being refugees bussed in from western Azerbaijan.
But Qarabağ never forgot their roots, even in Baku and tirelessly worked, as they do today, to improve the life of those displaced by the conflict.
There’s still people in limbo now - the government has been slow to resettle them – to do so would be almost an admission the region is Armenia’s.
Today Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto independent and de jure Azeri, although its ambiguous status suits neither them nor Armenia, and a breakthrough has yet to be found, even with Russian-mediated talks.
The issue dictated that the two were kept apart in the Euro 2012 draw and has even permeated into the Eurovision Song Contest. Crikey, the gloves really are off.
NEWS: UEFA to keep ex-Soviet sides apart
Azeri television obscured the number of the Armenian entry in last year’s competition, not that that prevented a hardy few from casting their vote for Inga and Anush Arshakyans.
It cost them far more than the price of a text, mind.
The 32 Azeris that registered their enjoyment of the duo’s performance of Jan Jan had their details passed to the Ministry of National Security by their mobile phone operators, and were branded “potential security threats.”
Poor old Rovshan Nasirli, a 25-year-old chap from Baku, was detained and forced to pen an essay explaining his “unpatriotic” choice before being released.
Also last year, Qarabağ took the momentous decision to re-locate.
Even today soldiers occupy the trenches and Qarabağ’s fellow Premyer Liqası chums weren’t exactly beaming at the prospect of playing of playing 15 miles from the frontline, but the PFL and AFFA were surprisingly compliant on the matter, perhaps because the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is still such a contentious one in Azerbaijan.
The club picked the town of Guzanli, pretty much the closest “safe” settlement to Agdam, as their new home and buoyed by crowds of a few thousand (well what did you expect? The Guzanli Stadium’s hardly Old Trafford), Qarabağ have turned the ground into something of a fortress.
They’ve swept all before them this season at home, bar a couple of draws, including a dour 0-0 with Qäbälä, who may or may not share an affinity with the absurd wristband-wearing Madonna-championed homonymic religion.
They might, though. Maybe the Queen of Pop is looking to adopt in the region; there are plenty of refugees in need of a home in western Azerbaijan...
Qarabağ currently sit second in the table, three points behind Inter Bakı, although being a finicky sort of blog, NMTB would cite a lack of goals as the club’s downfall in its title challenge this season.
OK, Qarabağ scored three last Wednesday, but they’ve been at a premium for the Stallions, who've averaged just one a game and have nicked every match they’ve won by a single goal.
But then, it never hurt Arsenal for several decades BW (Before Wenger), and if they're keeping them out at the other end and second in the table, Qarabag's manager Qurban Qurbanov can hardly complain.
And their cause won’t be aided by Steve McClaren getting Vagif Javadov.
Nope, that’s not some nasty STD the pseudo-Dutchman picked up when his FC Twente side played Qarabağ in a Europa League tie last year that’s resulted in a costly lawsuit with the Azeris.
Javadov was Qarabağ’s star striker and is the current Player of the Year in Azerbaijan whom McClaren bought in the recent transfer window.
The 20-year-old is a bit special and, much like a nasty STD, it’s probably not the last you’ve heard of him.
Qarabağ’s fans continue to look to the team as a symbol of hope and inspiration, and it would be an apposite reward for them and the club if it was Aslan Kerimov lifting the Premyer Liqası trophy in May.
For more information on Nagorno-Karabakh, NMTB recommends Simon Reeve’s documentary from the BBC’s Holidays in the Danger Zone: Places That Don’t Exist series.
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