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Azerbaijani Football: A Feud of Two Halves

A row over leadership of the Azerbaijani football federation is virtually shutting down the whole national game
By Namik Ibragimov

Azerbaijan is risking an early exit from the qualifying rounds of football's European Championship, as the latest twist in a five-year-long feud for control of the game is paralysing the national sport.

The fight reached a climax last week, when the tax police sealed the offices of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan, AFFA, alleging that the national soccer association owed half a million US dollars in unpaid tax.

It is the culmination of a very public and bitter contest. On one half of the field is the former Communist-era party boss of Baku, Fuad Musayev, who enjoys the support of international backers in the sport's international bodies FIFA and UEFA.

On the other is Ilham Aliev - son of President Heidar Aliev - favourite to be Azerbaijan's next leader and head of the national Olympic Committee, supported by several national teams.

In the last three weeks the government has moved to oust Musayev. The tax authorities, acting with the support of the authorities, searched AFFA's Baku headquarters and the private apartment of its general director Oktai Zeinalov on February 22 and also sealed the country's main stadium, Shafa.

Zeinalov, who has been a close ally of Musayev's since they worked together in Soviet times, was in Turkey when tax officials searched his apartment and confiscated a notebook computer.

Earlier this month the courts ordered the seizure of five cars belonging to AFFA, claiming this was in lieu of unpaid debts to the Turkish company Atak. As a result, the national team was forced to hire a private bus to meet it at the airport when they came back from their latest match against Serbia and Montenegro on February 12.

AFFA denies that it owes Atak any money and has filed a counter-suit for 41,000 dollars in compensation.

Musayev has been in charge of AFFA since 1992, when the new football association was formed and joined FIFA and UEFA.

"I will never step down from my post just because the authorities want me to," a defiant Musayev told IWPR. "I am the legally elected president of the association and I am not afraid of blackmail or threats, wherever they come from. I would rather deny than resign."

However, he faces a formidable opponent in Ilham Aliev. As well as heading Azerbaijan's Olympic Committee, the president's son is an MP and vice-president of a state oil company. In the past five years he has helped ensure that the posts of president of the national associations for volleyball, handball, wrestling, hockey and weightlifting have all gone to government officials, who are his allies.

Ilham Aliev has used a string of footballing defeats on the field to Italy, Finland and Wales to move against Musayev. Last November he declared, "I believe that we have to pull out of international football, that would be better than the disgraceful results the team has had abroad."

Deputy sports minister Asif Askerov also accused Musayev of failing to lead Azerbaijani football from the front. He told IWPR, "By behaving the way he does, [Musayev] is reminiscent of a man who passed into a lethargic sleep ten years ago and has only just woken up."

The row has already deprived Azerbaijan of its regular football league, as many of the country's clubs have refused to play while Musayev remained president. Kazbek Tuayev, head trainer with the Baku team Neftchi, told IWPR that the AFFA president had "destroyed" Azerbaijani football.

However, FIFA and UEFA bosses are more sympathetic to Musayev. An international delegation visited Azerbaijan in December to try to persuade the clubs to resume playing and when that mission failed, banned them from playing in Europe.

Now there are fears that the national team's four remaining qualifying matches for the 2004 European Championship - against Italy and Wales away and Serbia and Montenegro and Finland at home - will be called off. That would deprive Azerbaijani football of large and much-needed revenues.

In their raid on AFFA's offices, the tax police confiscated Musayev's visa documentation and all the financial papers for the trip to Great Britain, due to take place at the end of March. An angry Musayev lashed out at his main foe saying, "Ask Ilham Aliev, let him send a team to Wales."

National team captain Tarlan Akhmedov expressed frustration at the ongoing row, complaining, "The only thing I can do in life is play football. It's very unpleasant for my comrades and myself to watch what is going on.

"We played well against Serbia and Montenegro and wanted to do the same thing against Wales. But obviously someone doesn't want that to happen. I will not give an opinion on what is going on. My job is to play football."

As for Azerbaijan's soccer fans, most say that the only loser is the game of football.

"It's painful for me to remember Soviet times, when my club played in the Soviet league," said Ramiz Gakhramanov, a 65-year-old fan of the Baku team Neftchi. "Our boys were brilliant back then. I used not to miss a single match, but I've stopped going. It's shameful to watch this mess happening to our football."

Asef Zeinalov, a trainer and former Neftchi player, lamented to IWPR that, "the sad thing is that neither side in the conflict gives a damn about football".

Namik Ibragimov is a correspondent with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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