With a title like that, you just have to read on don't you....
Gurban Gurbanov is the all-time leading goal scorer for the Azerbaijani international football team. His squat power, shaved head and unerring instinct for goal in an often poor side recalled perhaps a little of Steve Bull. After his retirement in 2006, Gurbanov moved seamlessly into management with his former club, Neftci, traditional powerhouses of the Azeri capital, Baku. Gurbanov immediately impressed, and was expected to lead the “most famous, popular and celebrated” club in the country for many years to come, engaging in annual, bilateral title disputes with nouveau riche Khazar Lankaran. Instead, he left after just two years, to join a small club with no home ground, a team who had never won a league title, and with little prospect of ever doing so. Such an apparently inexplicable decision can only be understood by an examination of his destination, FK Qarabag, and an understanding of the huge emotional pull Azeris feel towards their home region, the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
For many years, Qarabag’s Horsemen, named for the wild creatures running free in the flat plains of Karabakh, or, in translation, ‘black garden’, attracted little national interest. Largely an also-ran in the national championship of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, they were dwarfed by the comparative giants of Baku, seen as a quaint inconvenience, a lengthy trip from the sophisticated capital to the barbarous mountains of the east. As the Soviet Union broke up, and a nascent, independent Azerbaijan emerged, everything changed.
Soviet division of territory along broad ethnic lines left many territorial paradoxes, particularly in the diverse, multi-ethnic Caucasus. One of the more egregious examples is the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, wholly inside Azerbaijan but with an Armenian majority, at the fall of the Soviet Union, of around 70%. As Mikhail Gorbachev pursued perestroika in Moscow, secessionists in Karabakh demanded self-determination, effectively the right to move from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. This was denied, and the subsequent war left 30,000 dead, with the region a bizarre, self-governing, though definitely not independent, sector of Azerbaijan, its entire budget drawn from neighbouring Armenia. Furthermore, a route was forcibly forged between Karabakh and Armenia, desperately needed by the rebels, but resulting in wholesale displacement of the native Azeri population. Right in the heart of this path was Aghdam, home of FK Qarabag. The city of Aghdam was captured and razed to the ground, its population driven away, its buildings burnt. Resolution 853 of the United Nations Security Council condemned the seizure of the city and accused the invading Armenians of breaching both human rights and agreed wartime conventions. Many Azeri civilians were killed in the fighting, including Allahverdi Bagirov, manager of FK Qarabag. The team’s ground, the Imarat Stadium, was destroyed by Armenian shelling. The club joined the Azeri exodus, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, and headed for Baku.
Suddenly, the Horsemen of the east were a national cause celebre. Bagirov’s name acquired the appellation “national hero”, and the team became a focal point for national defiance. The term ‘Xalq Komandasi’, Team of the Nation, was coined. When Gurbanov took over, the club had built a decent squad of young Azeri players, and were making early, tentative steps into the minor European competitions. Some notable scalps were claimed, including the Norwegian club Rosenborg, beaten on the anniversary of the Armenian seizure of Aghdam. Rosenborg’s manager Erik Hamre acknowledged the importance of the date, but said that it was important to “distinguish conflicts from the game.” This has not always been possible for FK Qarabag, especially when the possibility of a return to Aghdam was mooted.
According to figures from the UNHCR, Azerbaijan has one of the largest numbers of Internally Displaced Persons in the world. Estimates indicate that some 600,000 people have been forced to leave their homes during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Few of these are expected to return; most now have settled elsewhere in the intervening two decades, and despite international mediation, there seems little prospect of a resolution to the dispute. FK Qarabag, however, never gave up on their wish to return to the Aghdam region. Their links with the area remained strong; the majority of their small attendances whilst in Baku were those from resettlement camps near Aghdam, enduring a fourteen hour trip in a bumpy, stuffy bus to see their team. In 2009, it was agreed that the club would return to their roots.
Aghdam is still a ghost town. It remains an active minefield; those few hardy souls who reside there do so without access to electricity, and tourists are banned from visiting. The closest site which could be found for FK Qarabag was Quzanli, a tiny village just outside the Armenian area of control. The club’s new home would be the grandiosely-titled Olympic Stadium: a cluttered, run-down affair whose 2,000 capacity is mostly crammed into hard, uncomfortable blue plastic seats along the northern side of the pitch. The paucity of facilities, though, is not a great issue, here amongst the brittle new homes built for optimistic Azeri re-settlers. Qarabag are back, almost, where they belong.
Since the move, the club’s relative success has continued. At the time of writing they sit a respectable fourth in the Azeri League, closely in touch with all bar the “Caucasian Chelsea”, Khazar Lankaran. Qarabag’s most notable football achievement of the season was a 1-0 defeat of Club Brugge in a Europa League qualifier, albeit having lost the first leg 4-1 in Belgium. Sadly, Brugge, like all other foreign sides, were denied the delights of the Quzanli Olympic stadium. Qarabag contest European fixtures in Baku, with most Western governments still cautioning against travel to their home region.
For FK Qarabag, though, merely contesting European fixtures is of enormous importance. It gives the football community pause to recognise the existence of the region, and of those expelled from it. They will not win the Europa League, but one day hope to reach the group stage, which with a fortuitous draw would not be impossible. This would be terrific exposure; their plight would be seen, even from the safe distance of Baku. The Horsemen are riding against the tide of history, but at least they are back in their long lost black garden.