Fresh from their Armenian excursion, Joseph S. Blatter and Michel Platini touched down in Azerbaijan, where they opened the 'House of Football' in Baku on 17 October, before paying an official visit to President Ilham Aliyev. Once again, it was a busy but rewarding day for all concerned.
The two men certainly had a lot to fit in, but that made perfect sense in a country where everything moves at an astonishing pace. After achieving independence from the USSR in 1991, the country bounded by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Turkey and the Caspian Sea found itself suspended by FIFA four years ago. Thankfully, that period is ancient history now, and on Wednesday Blatter and Platini signalled a new era by opening the 'House of Football' in the capital.
The weather was cold and thoroughly wet, yet the superb modern building made possible by FIFA's Goal Project and UEFA's Hat-Trick Programme looked splendid when the presidents of the two organising bodies arrived. "We have a saying that goes 'rainy wedding, happy marriage'," remarked Platini. "This French expression fits perfectly with this wonderful union between FIFA, UEFA and the AFFA [Azerbaijani Football Association]."
Set in motion in 2005, the project did not take long to bear fruits. The results look fantastic too, with the buildings above all practical, spacious and well-equipped. "A good house needs solid foundations," explained Blatter. "In this case, the foundations are the values of unity, performance, authenticity and integrity, and you have all of those here in Azerbaijan, as this successful construction effort proves. I believe your football will continue to advance with giant strides." The FIFA President also joined Platini in "sending as much positive energy as possible" to AFFA President Ramiz Mirzayev, who is currently ill.
Recently named General Secretary of the AFFA, Elkhan Mammadov spoke for the local association and shared his ideas and ambitions. "First of all, I want to create interest in football among the young people in our country," he said. "The major sports in Azerbaijan are wrestling, boxing and judo, but that's because our children don't have enough access to football. That's why we ran street football and seven-a-side tournaments around the country this summer. They were a huge success, not least in media terms. Now we have to continue in the same vein, which means travelling everywhere and going into the countryside to provide the means to help youngsters play and train. That's exactly what FIFA and UEFA are helping us to do."
Blatter: 'we can help solve problems'
The 'House of Football' tour concluded with a press conference, attended by the two presidents and Azad Ragimov, Minister of Youth and Sports and the General Secretary. Among the questions posed, the issue of the cancelled matches between Armenia and Azerbaijan was raised, which led Blatter to comment that, "FIFA must remain neutral. Thanks to football and a good understanding between associations, we can help solve local problems, as in Palestine or Afghanistan, for example. But FIFA can never serve as a substitute for a political decision."
For his part, Platini spoke of the measures Azerbaijan must take before it can boast a great national team. "FIFA and UEFA have given you the means to create infrastructures, and that's the first step," he said. "Now it's up to you to carry out development work and train good educators - for the good of your children, who will perhaps become great players one day."
Keeping up their frantic pace, the two presidents left the AFFA's new headquarters for the State Institute of Physical Culture and Sport. Upon arrival, vice-rector Qahraman Mammadyarov awarded Blatter an honorary doctorate from the Department of Football, in an amphitheatre packed to the rafters with students thrilled to welcome world football's two leading figures.
With that, it was time to catch an aeroplane to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, where in pleasant contrast to Baku the sun announced itself present to greet the visiting duo. They had flown in to meet with Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, who lives in the region and is an avid sports enthusiast, as well as being President of the National Olympic Committee. After decorating Blatter and Platini with awards, he received his guests for an official but informal dinner, where the subjects on the table ranged from the state of football in the country to the 2016 Olympic Games and politics.
The conversation flowed in a relaxed atmosphere, which prompted the FIFA President to conclude afterwards: "I am extremely touched to have been received in such a wonderful manner. You are a great statesman and I have no doubt you will continue to support football in your country in the best possible fashion." It was difficult to imagine a better way to conclude FIFA and UEFA's first joint foray into Eastern Europe.