Beautiful Game Returns to Azeri Front Line Region

Move stems from Baku football chiefs’ decision to move more games to the provinces.

Beautiful Game Returns to Azeri Front Line Region

Move stems from Baku football chiefs’ decision to move more games to the provinces.

For villagers in Gunzanly, life has held precious little enjoyment since the Karabakh war, when most of their home region, including the regional capital Aghdam, ended up controlled by Armenian troops.

But this year, they finally have something to cheer about: the return of their football team.

For the last few years of the Soviet Union, Karabakh Football Club was based in Aghdam. But since the war, which saw Nagorny Karabakh – the mountainous part of the historic Karabakh region – break free from Baku’s control, and until May this year, it had played its home games in the Azeri capital.

“We will no longer need to wait for the broadcast of the Karabakh [FC] games which were held in Baku, or somewhere else. Our team will now play at home,” said Agamalik Kerimov, a 46-year-old native of of Gunzanly, which is 20 kilometres from the line of control that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.

In the team’s first game at home in the village, every seat in the 2,000-capacity stadium was full and hundreds of other fans stood at the gates of the ground trying to catch sight of the action. They greeted a 1-1 draw with the Baku-based Inter club like a victory, staying in their seats until long after the match finished, since the result boosted their own chances of winning the league.

Although their team did not end up winning the league, something the club has only done once, in 1993, it did make it into the continent-wide UEFA Europa League, and managed to secure a 0-0 draw against the Norwegian club Rosenborg on July 16.

That is already enough for the season to be marked as a success for Gunzanly’s football fans, beneficiaries of a policy from football’s governing body in Azerbaijan to move more games into the provinces.

In previous seasons, the main stadiums in the capital were being used by as many as three different teams, and the professional football league encouraged sides to leave Baku. Other clubs have also moved, such as Standart, which has relocated to the town of Sumgait, but the decision by Karabakh FC to move a village startled observers.

The club was criticised in Azerbaijan’s sporting press for its decision to move to such a small base, but coach Gurban Gurbanov said he did not regret the decision.

“There was no reason for concern. In fact, playing in Gunzanly has been for Karabakh [FC] very comfortable and convenient,” he said.

“In the first place, I am considering the fact that this is the Aghdam team and they should play in Aghdam. It is hard to imagine how much the local residents awaited the return of their team. These people saw the horrors of war, lost their friends and relatives. It would be a shame to take away from them the little happiness of seeing their favourite team win.”

In fact, the move to Gunzanly has been profitable for the team, since the local government has promised to pay their rent on the stadium, and for the running costs of the match.

Although the town of Aghdam is technically outside the boundaries of Nagorny Karabakh, it is controlled by Armenian forces, who dominate the entire southwestern corner of the territory, internationally considered to be Azerbaijan.

The managers of the club hope they can one day return to the town, where they had a fine stadium, but they will have to wait for a political resolution of the Karabakh conflict, which has been frozen since a ceasefire was signed 15 years ago.

Besides, Aghdam was so damaged by the fighting that the team would not be able to return to the old stadium even if Azerbaijan were to restore control over the town.

And Karabakh FC may soon not be the only team to represent a town lost to Baku’s control. Ramin Masayev, head of the professional football league, said that while he was watching the game in Gunzanly, he was approached with the suggestion that a team could be created to represent Shusha, which is deep within Nagorny Karabakh itself.

“The head of the Shusha administration [in exile] came up to me and said he wants to form his own team. I recommended that he registers it with the justice ministry. They wanted to name their team Shusha. I gave my word that we would help in any way we can,” Masayev said.

Joshqun Eldaroglu is a freelance journalist based in Baku.
Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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