Azerbaijan’s future in safe hands

There are some defeats that feel like victories, and Azerbaijan’s 1-0 loss to Canada on Saturday was a perfect example of one.

At the end of the final Group A match it was not the victors who were raising their arms aloft in triumph but the hosts, their pride swelled at having restricted the mighty Canucks, who finished second in the CONCACAF qualifying competition and are now through to the last eight at Azerbaijan 2012, to a single goal.

“Our aim today was to score at least one goal and avoid defeat, but this loss feels like a victory to me,” Azeri goalkeeper Aytaj Sharifova told afterwards. “We’ve represented our country the best we could.”

The home custodian certainly did that, and came in for praise from Canada boss Bryan Rosenfeld in the post-match press conference: “That we didn’t win by a bigger margin is mainly down to the goalkeeper, who kept pulling off great saves all the way through the game.”

“I just wanted to show that I’ve been learning from my training sessions,” added Sharifova, whose sharp reflexes and decisiveness in the box kept the Canadians at bay until Valerie Sanderson struck a 48th-minute winner.

“It went well today, but I’m not the only player to have had a big hand in our performance out there. My team-mates were fantastic and they saved my skin a lot of times during the game.”

Our aim today was to score at least one goal and avoid defeat, but this loss feels like a victory to me. We’ve represented our country the best we could.

Azerbaijan’s German coach Sissy Raith was also full of praise for her side’s efforts: “The way we competed was excellent. I saw a team playing with passion, a group of players giving all they had to gain every little bit of ground. That shows the strength of character of my team, who’ve come back well after suffering two defeats.”

Raith is aware, however, that much still needs to be done. The scale of the task is reflected by the fact that Azerbaijan are the first ever side to be eliminated from the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup without scoring a goal and are also the first hosts to have lost all their matches.

“We didn’t put all that work in for two years just to come away with three defeats so obviously I’m not happy,” she commented.

Looking on the bright side, she added: “I’ve focused mainly on the team ethic and the concept of the group, and this has been a great experience for us. We worked very hard in preparing for this tournament and it’s clear to see that there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. But we’ve laid the foundations now and all we need to do now is keep going.”

With that objective in mind, the German tactician has been working on her Azeri language skills: “I know a few words now, like ‘nuş olsun’ (Bon appétit), ‘nasılsınıze’ (How are you?), ‘səhər yaxşı’ (Hello), and I’m coming along ‘sürətli’ (quickly).”

Her players are progressing at a rate of knots too, as Sharifova showed with her display on Sunday. Having conceded 15 goals in her first two games, the 15-year old, who plays for the BTI club, came back in style against the Canadians, fuelling her dreams of enjoying a career as successful as that of her role model, Colombian custodian Faryd Mondragon.

“I’m not going to stop here. I want to go as far as I can,” she said. “I’m proud that Azerbaijan now has an U-17 women’s team and I’m proud to be its last line of defence.”