Soccer in Azerbaijan has caught the fancy of some of the country’s leading corporations, which are spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade facilities and sign high-profile coaches and players from around the world.
Azerbaijani businesses’ interest in soccer may be a case of “follow the leader.” In 2008, the influential head of the SOCAR state oil company, Rovnag Abdullayev, was named head of the Azerbaijan Football Federations Association.
“Large investments” in Azerbaijani soccer teams began soon after Abdullayev’s appointment, according to Gamid Gamidov, editor of ExtraTime, an online sports publication. “I think that large holdings and businesses received unofficial ‘advice’ [from the government] to invest in and develop football,” Gamidov said.
Business moguls or large corporations now own eight of the 12 teams playing in Azerbaijan’s UniBank-Premier League, the country’s top soccer league. Local governments reportedly provide support to smaller tier teams.
SOCAR – not surprisingly, given the name – runs Baku’s top-ranked club, Neftchi, or oil men in English. Turkish shipping company Palmali Holding, which has provided tankers for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, operates the country’s number-two team, Khazar-Lenkoran. The state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan controls the number-three soccer club, Inter.
State-owned Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) runs the team by the same name, fourth-place-ranked AZAL. Azerbaijan’s largest food exporter, Azersun Holding, owns the Karabakh team, while the sprawling Nurgun Holding, with stakes in sectors ranging from media to construction, controls the Mugan team. Prominent businessperson Hafiz Mammadov, who doubles as a member of parliament for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, owns the Baki (Baku) team.
The recruitment earlier this year of Tony Adams, a former star defender for Arsenal, to coach the Gabala team is perhaps the most noteworthy of the recent developments. Adams is reportedly earning a million pounds per year. Based in northern Azerbaijan, Gabala is owned by Tale Heydarov, the 25-year-old son of Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov. Team officials say they are intent on turning Gabala into a full-fledged “European contender.” Aside from Adams, the team this year recruited Jamaican striker Deon Burton and British midfielder Terry Cooke. It’s also getting a new 14,000-capacity stadium designed by the British firm AFL Architects, which has also created new stadiums for such big-time English clubs Chelsea, Manchester United and Everton.
Adams’ team has gotten off to an inauspicious start, now occupying last place in the Premier League standings. An optimistic Adams, though, is taking a long view, vowing that his team will soon be one of the league’s powerhouses. “Over three years we’ll create a good group,” media outlets quoted Adams as saying.
Adams is not the only Western star in Azerbaijan. In June, Baki, ranked ninth in the 12-team national league, signed a contract with German coach Winfred Schaefer, who in the past has led Cameroon’s national team, as well as several German clubs.
Foreign coaches are also in charge of several other Azerbaijani football clubs, including Neftchi, Khazar-Lenkoran and Inter.
Various players have also arrived from leading European leagues. In August, for example, Neftchi signed Belgium national team forward Emil Mpenza. Overall, Azerbaijanis now account for only about 50 percent of the Premier League’s players, according to Gamidov. He estimates that the top eight Azerbaijani football clubs each spend on average between $12 million-$15 million per year. In comparison with European teams' spending, that sum may be modest, but within the South Caucasus, it places Azerbaijan in a class of its own.
Whether the big spending can pay off remains to be seen. Azerbaijan currently is 105th in the FIFA (Fédération Intérnationale de Football Association) world rankings. Armenia is ranked 96th, while Georgia is 110th out of the 202 national squads that are ranked.
One former head coach of Azerbaijan’s national football team is optimistic. If teams continue to recruit foreign coaches and players, Azerbaijani clubs within the next six years could start making a mark in international tournaments, predicted Vagif Sadikhov, who coached Azerbaijan’s national team for three years. “The arrival of well-known coaches and players has already had a visible effect [on Azerbaijani football],” Sadikhov said. “It has increased the quality of the Premier League. There is real competition there now.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.