Although the Azerbaijan Football Association (AFFA) was founded in 1992 and joined FIFA just two years later, the game of football has been played in the country for 100 years now. To celebrate that anniversary, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter has made a two-day visit to the Azeri capital of Baku in the company of his UEFA counterpart Michel Platini.
“Many congratulations on your re-election as FIFA President,” said the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on greeting Blatter and Platini on their arrival on Sunday. “We are very happy that your first visit after the elections should be to Azerbaijan.”
Independent since 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Turkey, and has a coastline on the Caspian Sea. The country is preparing to host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2012, the Official Emblem of which was presented to Blatter following his arrival.
One of the venues for that tournament is the Dalga Stadium, which was officially opened on Monday at a ceremony attended by Blatter and Platini. A training pitch will be added to the complex and will be built with the support of the Goal Project.
The visiting delegation then attended the laying of the first stone at Baku’s Olympic Stadium, which will have a capacity of 65,000 when it is completed in 2015, making it the largest sports venue in the country.
On this his second visit to the country, the first coming in October 2007 when he opened the country’s Home of Football, also in the company of Platini, Blatter congratulated the national FA on 100 years of Azeri football and thanked it for inviting him to take part in the celebrations: “This is a great day. There are not many FIFA members who can say they’ve been organising games for 100 years. Football brings people together. It is the people’s sport and it can open doors, and we need to apply the discipline, respect and fair play of football to society. Now is the time to recognise the efforts of this country, which has lifted itself up and achieved great things. We must also thank the President for everything he is doing.”
As part of the foundation ceremony, Aliyev’s son scored a goal in a small net set up on an artificial pitch. “Football is growing in Azerbaijan and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup is a great responsibility for us, though we will work hard to ensure it is a success,” added the Azeri leader.
At the press conference that followed the ceremony the President of the Azerbaijan FA Abdullayev Rovnag praised the work being carried out to develop football in the country: “There is a state football development programme in place and a lot is being done to improve not just infrastructures but teams and results as well.”
Blatter then took his turn to speak of the progress the country is making in both economic and sporting terms. “The country will host its first FIFA World Cup next season,” he said. “Sixteen teams of young girls will contest the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and will enjoy a well-organised tournament with excellent stadiums. Football is reaching new parts of the world and new cultures and that is very important for the sport.”
The official banquet that brought the FIFA President’s visit to Azerbaijan to an end was attended by the Azeri Minister for Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov and 400 other guests. Providing the entertainment were Ell and Niki, the winners of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, and a film recalling the 100-year history of football in the country.
The banquet also featured the presentation of the Official Emblem of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012. Inspired by the colours of the national flag and comprising a dynamic figure visually linking the host country and women’s football, the Official Emblem also includes a “buta”, an ornamental feature of Azeri art. The evening ended on a sweet note when a huge cake in the form of a football, specially made to mark the 100th anniversary of Azeri football, was served for dessert.