German connection driving Azerbaijan's progress
© AFP

As an Azerbaijani playing in the third tier of German football, Dmitri Nazarov is not used to seeing his name in the headlines. That all changed recently, however, after the Preussen Munster forward was called up by Azerbaijan’s German head coach, Berti Vogts, for the country’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier against Russia on 16 October.

Nazarov’s call-up is just one manifestation of the footballing bond that exists between Azerbaijan and Germany at present. Indeed, five Germany-based players – Suheyla Iltar, Melis Sarialtin, Leila Solmaz, Sabrina Ronaghi and Hulya Cin – represented Azerbaijan at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, while Vogts and his compatriot Sissy Raith manage the men’s senior national team and the women’s U-17s respectively.

But the German connection does not end there. The men’s U-20 side is also coached by former Eintracht Frankfurt assistant Bernhard Lippert, while the U-15 and U-16 sides are both led by Nicolai Adam. “There is a collaboration between the German Football Federation (DFB) and the Azerbaijan football association (AFFA), which is why four German coaches hold those posts,” Raith explained, adding: “The quality of German coaches is known around the world.”

“In 2008, a protocol agreement was signed between the AFFA and the DFB which included the involvement of German coaches,” said Elkhan Mammadov, Secretary General of the AFFA. “The development of refereeing, youth training and the development of women’s football are some of the areas in which we are working together closely.”

“Many things have changed,” Mammadov continued. “Most of our national coaches have taken courses and obtained the UEFA licence. The quality of refereeing has improved. And, thanks to Silvia Raith, we have been able to ‘launch’ women’s football in our country. We are very proud that there are now two leagues – an U-15 and an U-17 – both of which include 16 teams.” Proof, then, that the country’s efforts are starting to bear fruit.

Raith’s U-17 side suffered a first-round exit at Azerbaijan 2012 but showed great enthusiasm and fighting spirit throughout group phase, bowing out with a narrow 1-0 defeat by women’s football giants Canada. “We didn’t put all that work in for two years just to come away with three defeats, so obviously I’m not happy,” said the coach. “But we’ve laid the foundations now, and all we need to do is keep going.”

Sights set on 2016
It is a similar story for the senior men’s side, which, having long been set up to avoid defeat at all costs, is now focused on trying to win games. Vogts has presided over some notable victories, including a 1-0 defeat of Czech Republic in November 2009 and a 1-0 away win against Albania, and the team is now altogether more consistent and robust. And while Azerbaijan have made a less than ideal start to their Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign, drawing 1-1 with Israel and losing 3-0 to Portugal, the AFFA are more concerned with securing a place at UEFA EURO 2016.

“Football is the future in Azerbaijan,” Vogts told FIFA.com. “The government and the AFFA are investing huge amounts of money in the sport. Football’s importance here is growing by the day. Azerbaijan is a small country, but its inhabitants have a big heart – one that beats for football.” Indeed, in a country where weightlifting, wrestling and chess have long reigned supreme, football is now officially the sport of choice.

The effects of football’s new-found status are clear to see, with the country’s top clubs now attracting more star names and getting better results on the pitch. English coach Tony Adams, for instance, spent 18-months in charge of top-flight side Gabala, and took with him the Jamaican international striker Deon Burton.

The 57-cap Belgian international Emile M’Penza, meanwhile, spent two seasons in the black-and-white shirt of Neftchi Baku, who recently became the first Azerbaijani team to reach the group stage of a European competition by qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. But, as far as Vogts is concerned, that is still not enough.

“The AFFA is making progress, but the clubs and their coaches are still not doing enough,” he said. “You can’t train for just three days a week and expect to see improvements. You have to do more. Professional clubs must invest more time and money, not only in player recruitment but also in infrastructure, academies and so on,” he added, before concluding: “We’re starting from the bottom but we’re aiming for the top.”