Last year at this time, the eyes of Europe were fixed firmly on Azerbaijan. Thanks to the vocal talents of Eldar and Nigar, this relatively small nation of nine million inhabitants became the kings of the continent, eclipsing the likes of the UK, Germany, Spain and France to win the Eurovision Song Contest.
Though the country’s football team still has some way to go before they can match that achievement and rank among Europe’s great tenors, when they are on song they can hold a tune as well as anyone.
“It’s going to be four or five years before Azerbaijan can take its place as one of Europe’s mid-ranking teams,” said the national team’s German coach Berti Vogts. “We can’t rush things. Football’s something of a minority sport here. Chess is number one, followed by wrestling and weightlifting.”
Ranked 109th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Odlar Yurdu (The Land of Fire) are still a work in progress. Fluctuating between a high of 90th, achieved in November 2010, and 120th, a lasting place in the top 100 has so far eluded them.
That said, there are encouraging signs of a brighter future. Though they fell short of a place at UEFA EURO 2012, the Azeris still managed to punch above their weight in their section, beating Turkey 1-0 and holding Belgium to a 1-1 draw.
Vogts in charge
“I took over as coach four years ago with the very definite intention of helping the national association as much as I could,” said Vogts, who guided Germany to the European title in 1996. “We have developed our structures and the country has big plans for the future, which include qualifying for UEFA EURO 2016.”
Mindful of the contribution prized assets such as strike duo Rauf Aliyev and Vuqar Nadirov can make to achieving that goal he added: “I’m banking on young players to get there, players who can make the impossible possible.”
With Vogts in charge, the Azeris have brushed up their act. Aside from notable 1-0 wins over Czech Republic in November 2009 and Albania two years later, his side has developed a consistent streak and become more solid. Content in the past merely to avoid defeat, they are now committed to winning and have strung together a three-game unbeaten run.
“Berti Vogts has brought discipline to the national team,” said the President of the Azeri Football Association Rovnag Abdullayev, who has got his coach to commit to a contract extension that will keep him in the post until 2014. “I think he’s managed to create a whole new atmosphere in the team.”
It’s going to be four or five years before Azerbaijan can take its place as one of Europe’s mid-ranking teams.
Further proof of that came in February, when Azerbaijan underlined their potential by cruising to a 3-0 win over India.
Attracting the stars
Results like that are not the only indication that Azeri football is in rude health. Once thought little of, the domestic championship is now beginning to lure more and more well-known names, among them former England international Tony Adams, who was in charge of club side Gabala for 18 months and brought Jamaican striker Deon Burton with him. Meanwhile, Emile Mpenza, 57 times an international for Belgium, has been wearing the black and white of FK Neftchi Baku for the last two seasons.
“I came here free,” said Adams before calling time on his stay in November 2011. “My history, the alcoholism, 22 years at Arsenal, etc ... it was not important to the people there. I’m just seen as the coach, the football man. The food is decent enough. I’m surrounded by a good bunch of guys, who are also good players.”
Azerbaijan is opening up to the rest of the football world in other ways, and will host the upcoming FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which runs from 22 September to 13 October 2012. And as a mark of the country’s emergence on the global footballing map, the Local Organising Committee have announced that international superstar Jennifer Lopez will be the star act at the tournament’s opening ceremony.