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Football shaped by conflict

The success of Azerbaijan’s FK Qarabağ in Europe introduces the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh to another stage.

November 27, 2020 - Robert O’Connor - Articles and Commentary

Stadium in Stepanakert Photo: Benoît Prieur (cc) wikimedia.org

Like all of the conflicts that broke out as a result of the USSR’s collapse, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has also helped to define the region’s football. This is not just true in Karabakh itself, but also increasingly in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

All three of these communities have attempted to build a credible football culture in the power vacuums left behind by the demise of Soviet power. Some have succeeded better than others.

But from Yerevan to Baku, via the winding mountain passes that lead to and from the Karabakh capital Stepanakert, the game is impacted by the prejudices and emotions of the conflict. At times, this influence can even work the other way.

In Baku, FK Qarabağ are Azerbaijan’s dominant team. Previously that honour fell to Neftchi PFK, the club of the old Soviet Azeri oil industry. Despite the country’s continued reliance on its burgeoning petroleum industry, however, it is Qarabağ that represents the soul of Azerbaijan these days.

They are the refugee club, exiles forced out of the former Azeri-populated town of Aghdam on Karabakh’s eastern border, yet with pockets stuffed with money from private and government investments. In the public consciousness, Qarabağ are a living representation of Azerbaijan’s rightful ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We will always use football to stand up for our right to return to our homeland,” I was told by the team’s press officer Nurlan, a likeable young man in his thirties who grew up in Baku around the time of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988-94. Back in 2001, Qarabağ’s finances were in dire straits, almost bankrupt after nearly a decade playing in different cities in Azerbaijan.

“The decision for the club to be bought by Azersun came from our ex-president Heydar Aliyev,” said Nurlan. Azersun, ostensibly a food processing company, are owned by two brothers, Hasan and Abdolbari Gozal. Both brothers have business links with Azerbaijan’s governmental elite, mostly through contracts signed during the last decade that have handed the pair, via their holding company Intersun, a huge financial stake in Baku’s construction boom. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported in 2014 that the company had received as much as 4.5 billion dollars in government construction contracts in the capital alone.

The football club in turn benefits from huge investment in both its infrastructure and playing staff, all financed by Intersun.

Domestic dominance has been easy enough for Qarabağ to obtain in what is a weak football landscape. But it is now Europe upon which they have set their sights. In 2017, the team qualified for the lucrative group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Yet more valuable to the club than the millions of dollars the opportunity earned them in media rights was the chance to stake their claim to Nagorno-Karabakh before a curious and captive international audience. In the autumn of 2017, the name of the tiny, Armenian-populated enclave became synonymous with Azerbaijan on the sports pages of Europe’s newspapers.

Even now, the club includes documents explaining the conflict’s background amongst those issued to foreign journalists during European fixtures. Naturally, these papers tell the Azerbaijani perspective on the conflict.

In Stepanakert, decades of isolation have made the town a lonely outpost on the fringes of European football. This is despite the efforts of the chief of Nagorno-Karabakh’s football association, Samuel Karapetyan, who has tried for years to open a dialogue with UEFA about potential membership for Karabakh. These days though, such conversations are dead in the water. Europe’s governing body has strict rules on who may and may not come to its table. With no international recognition of the de facto state, Nagorno-Karabakh has no leverage with which to lobby for a place in UEFA.

“In Crimea, UEFA have recognised that the territory is neither part of Russia nor Ukraine,” says Slava Gabrielyan, a UEFA-licensed coach who works with local Stepanakert club FC Artsakh. “They have put measures in place to allow football there to prosper. We hope and expect that UEFA will do the same here in Artsakh.”

Yet for now, the territory remains cut off from both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the football stakes, with no cross-border competition allowed under UEFA rules. There is also no sign of the governing body following the ‘Crimean model’ and making Karabakh a special funding zone.

For now, they struggle on in the mountains alone, with Azerbaijan poised to intercept any efforts the people here make to link up with the wider football world. In 2019, when Karabakh hosted a European tournament for various unrecognised nations and territories, the organisers were put under pressure by Azeri state authorities to withdraw their interest in holding the competition in Stepanakert.

Sascha Duerkop, who helped organise the tournament on behalf of the Confederation of International Football Associations, said of his experience with Baku: “I was accused of being an Armenian propagandist and told that they had convinced the German government to deport Azerbaijan state enemies like myself to Baku to imprison me. I wrote to the politician they cited, who confirmed such talks never happened.”

“Days later, an employee of the Azerbaijan UN mission contacted my wife on Facebook. “Speak to your husband and make him cancel the event or you will be a widow afterwards.””

Such is the sensitivity with which Azerbaijan regards its claim to sovereignty in Karabakh. Yet a place where they have limited scope to interfere is over the closed border with Armenia. Here, they have none of the oil riches enjoyed by the football community of their neighbour. Indeed, Armenian football survives on a shoestring budget, riven by corruption and an ugly criminal underworld.

“Football fans don’t know history,” I was told by Arsen Zaqaryan, a member of the Yerevan-based supporters group the First Armenian Front. “People hear that Qarabağ plays in Azerbaijan, so then they would never think that Karabakh is Armenian. It’s like a political project. They just need some way to communicate to Europe that Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”

Despite Armenia’s de facto ownership of Karabakh, there is a palpable feeling in Yerevan that, with the success of Qarabağ in Europe, the country is losing the propaganda war. “We don’t have the same money in Armenia as they do in Baku,” said another FAF member, Sergey Janjoyan. “They have their oil money and because of that they have a successful team that makes their fans happy. But we are hurting.”

An observer might hope that the conciliatory power of the world’s game could still point the way towards a place of understanding between the warring factions. Yet not even UEFA, with its billions of dollars and extensive influence, has the power to bring Armenians and Azerbaijanis to the same football pitch.

In 2007, the government of Azerbaijan refused to allow the Armenian national team into the country in order to play a European Championship fixture. Since then, the countries have been kept apart in competition draws.

The conflict is, in fact, as intractable on the football pitch as it is at the diplomatic table.

Robert O’Connor is a journalist living in London whose work on the subject of football, politics and history in Eastern Europe has been carried by The Times, the BBC, The Independent, the Telegraph, the Moscow Times, the i, Foreign Policy, New Internationalist and Vice. He is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

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