From Bombs To Trophies: Exiled Qarabaq Team Shakes The Champions League

When the bombs were falling from all angles during the deadly war between Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1991 to 1994, no one would imagine that an exiled team from Nagorno- Karabakh’s adjacent Aghdam district would play in the Champions League one day. 

Yet, to everyone’s surprise, Azerbaijan’s exiled team Qarabaq FK qualified for the UEFA Champions League after beating FC Copenhagen over two legs and made it to the group stages, where they are up against footballing giants such as Atletico Madrid, Roma and Chelsea, writes Dr. Ceyhun Osmanli.

Qarabaq made two remarkable draws 0-0 (18 October) and 1-1 (1 November) against Atletico Madrid. However, they lost narrowly 1-2 (27 September) against Roma, but they face their toughest test against Chelsea in a classical David and Goliath face-off.

Ironically enough, it was Stamford Bridge, a battlefield where English and Norwegian armies fought back in 1066 that Qarabaq FK played against Chelsea on 12 September. Most of the players of the Qarabaq FK had to flee from a battlefield themselves in a conflict that caused 30,000 deaths and 1,000,000 IDPs and refugees. 

Their home town Aghdam, also referred to as the Hiroshima of the Caucasus, was entirely destroyed, with 6,000 inhabitants being killed. For 25 years, the ruins of the Imarat Stadium, where they used to play their home games, have been patrolled by Armenian snipers.

This is the reason why Qarabaq FK became the only registered international football club in the world not being able to play home games in their own stadium and Chelsea will play Qarabaq FK some 440 kilometres away from their home stadium to the east in the Baku Olympic Stadium on 22 November.

A few of the players from the first Azerbaijani team to ever qualify for the Champions League come from the 128,000 inhabitants of Aghdam, who were internally displaced and settled in 875 settlements in Azerbaijan due to the Armenian occupation.

The team faced the risk of closure and went through hard times. The club had to organise and try to welcome supporters scattered all around Azerbaijan. Qarabaq somehow managed to live out their second spring like a phoenix born out of the ashes.

Agdam 9

Some of Qarabaq’s former players had to play football under incoming missiles or fill holes in the pitch made by bombs in order to continue the games. Others, such as Qarabaq’s former coach and Aghdam-native Allahverdi Bagirov, who became an army commander during the war, lost their lives on the frontline running over landmines. 

The club’s current captain Rashad Sadygov, midfielder Gara Garayev and striker Vuqar Nadirov were all displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts as children.

It is a rare miracle in the football world that these displaced people won Azerbaijan’s Premier League Championship for four consecutive years, played Ukraine’s Dnipro, France’s Saint Etienne and Italy’s Milan and made it to the Champions League. One can only wonder what kind of surprises the upcoming days will hold for football fans.

Once again political stakes will be high during the 2017-2018 Champions League. Not only will Armenia be viewing Qarabaq’s success as a reminder of its longstanding occupation of the 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territories despite several UN, European Parliament and Council of Europe resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of its armed forces…but also Russia, which deploys an estimated 5,000 military personnel and two bases in Armenia, will be eyeing the next game between Chelsea and Qarabaq to take place in Baku on 22 November with suspicion. 

Even more so, considering that the owner of the British club is a Russian billionaire businessman, Roman Abramovich.

Could Qarabaq become another Denmark, which surprised the whole world as champions of the Euro 1992 Championships following the ban of war-torn Yugoslavia? Hundreds of thousands of IDPs and refugees hold their breath and channel their hopes on the upcoming football battle between David and Goliath in the Champions League.

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Ceyhun Osmanli

Ceyhun Osmanli

Dr. Ceyhun Osmanli, a former MP of Azerbaijan, is Board Member of Odlar Yurdu University in charge of International Relations and Innovations.

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