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Azeris Guilty of Foul Play

The football pitches of Azerbaijan have become the latest battleground for warring power-brokers seeking to score political goals.
By Namik Ibrahimov

Personal rivalries have cast a long shadow over the republic's national soccer championships due to enter their second round this month.

International referees have even threatened to ban Azerbaijani teams from world tournaments as a result of the bitter in-fighting.

The trouble started in 1998 when Ilham Aliev, son of Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliev, was given a free hand to revitalise the nation's sports scene.

Formerly head of the National Olympic Committee, Aliev Jnr. persuaded top politicians to throw their weight behind a range of major sporting federations over which he maintained ultimate control. But the AFFA, the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan, decided not to play ball.

Fuad Musaev, legally elected as president of the AFFA until 2003, insisted on adopting a fiercely independent stance against the ruling cabal - a stance which has won him widespread popular support. He also enjoyed firm backing from the International Football Federation (FIFA).

The situation reached a head last summer when Musaev banned two teams, Turan and ANS-Pivani, from taking part in the national championships - ostensibly for disciplinary reasons.

However, most observers believe Musaev's ruling was motivated by the fact that the management of both clubs had demanded his resignation for allegedly infringing the terms of the AFFA charter. The call for Musaev's sacking enjoyed the warm approval of Ilham Aliev and the Ministry of Sport.

The AFFA president promptly accused Aliev and his father's administration of deliberately nobbling the nation's soccer fraternity. And he slammed Abulfaz Karaev, Minister of Youth and Sport, for kow-towing to the presidential family and conspiring against the AFFA.

The Ministry of Sport was swift to retaliate, closing down football stadiums across Azerbaijan on the eve of the national championships.

At this point, FIFA decided it was time to blow the final whistle and dispatched a team of arbiters to Baku in a bid to settle the dispute. Federation bosses told the Azerbaijani authorities that the republic would be sidelined from the international soccer scene if the warring factions could not find common ground.

The FIFA team subsequently demanded that the sports ministry should reopen the stadiums, get the championships under way and allow the banned teams to take part in the tournament, but in a lower league. The AFFA was told to hold a general meeting on January 25 during which calls for the president's resignation could be voiced openly.

Musaev's opponents leapt at this opportunity to manoeuvre their own candidate - former football player Alekper Mamedov - into the president's chair. Mamedov was duly voted in at the general meeting. However, conveniently forgetting to inform his rivals, Musaev had managed to persuade FIFA to postpone the official meeting until April 1 - meaning that the January 25 vote was invalid.

A furious FIFA ruled that the Mamedov's election was illegal and gave the Azerbaijani authorities seven days to restore the status quo. If its demands were not satisfied and Musaev reinstated, said FIFA, Azerbaijan would be excluded indefinitely from international footballing circles and banned from taking part in any international matches.

The minister of sport was quickly dispatched to Zurich where he met with FIFA Secretary-General Michael Zen-Ruffinen and attempted to smooth the Federation's ruffled feathers. Karaev agreed to a second visit by FIFA delegates to Baku in late March and to delay the second round of the national championship until that time.

The saga marks a rare victory for democracy in the Azerbaijani corridors of power, with Fuad Musaev effectively torpedoing Ilham Aliev's virtual autocracy. But the consequences for local football could be disastrous: although the second round of the championships now looks set to go ahead, it is unclear whether Azerbaijani teams will be able to compete for the European Cup. But, then again, the greater good of national soccer has never been a major consideration amidst all the political foul play.

Namik Ibrahimov is head of the information department for the Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.