Can Azerbaijan serve as a playground for Iran?
Baku has offered to host international soccer matches while its neighbor to the south has been deemed too unsafe.
Soccer is among the arenas where international tensions are taking a toll on Iran. Under a temporary ban from hosting international matches, Tehran might need a home away from home for games scheduled in Iran. Its neighbor to the north, Azerbaijan, appears ready to step into the breach.
Citing security concerns, in the wake of the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Iranian military, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has banned Iranian teams in its championship tournament from hosting games in Iran. Iran’s soccer authorities have taken issue with the decision, but AFC is not taking its chances: Two of the tournament’s preliminary matches have been rescheduled and moved from Iran to the United Arab Emirates, but the time and place for other games are yet to be decided.
Iran has four clubs participating in the Asian Champions’ League. Some of the clubs and national soccer officials said they would bail out of the games altogether in protest of what they called an “unfair decision,” or take the Confederation to international court.
But if they stay in the tournament, Azerbaijan has offered to help.
“Baku has all the conditions to host international games with participation of Iranian teams. This includes modern stadiums, comfortable hotels, road infrastructure,” Firuz Garayev, spokesperson for the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan, told the Azerbaijani news outlet Haqqin.az.
Oil and gas-rich Azerbaijan has been investing lavishly in glitzy sports infrastructure. Hosting international sports competitions, from soccer games to mini-Olympics to Formula 1 races, has been part of Baku’s policy to gain global prominence.
But Iran and Azerbaijan have a complicated relationship, thanks to Iran’s large Azerbaijani ethnic minority, Azerbaijan’s growing devout Shia Muslim population, and Baku’s friendly ties with Israel. Baku, however, did strongly condemn the U.S.’s killing of top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, which brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.
The decision about picking substitute venues for the Asian Champions’ League games ultimately rests with the AFC and Iranian football federations, and no one appears yet to have reached out to Baku. For all its territorial proximity and fancy sports infrastructure, one argument works against Azerbaijan: the country is not part of the Asian Football Confederation. Like other Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan plays in the European tournaments instead.
Befitting Azerbaijan’s east-meets-west identity, the Iranian teams’ Asian championship games could be interspersed with the games that Baku will host as part of UEFA’s Euro 2020 tournament this summer. “Azerbaijan can host games for the Asian league throughout the entire season, with the exception of the days when finals for the UEFA 2020 will be taking place in Baku,” Garayev said.
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