Azerbaijani football is on a serious decline – and has been for around five years. There have been many factors that contributed to its demise, most notably financial problems in the country that have plagued the Azerbaijan Premier League.
If you look at the game in Azerbaijan logically and sensibly, there is very little quality throughout the two divisions, especially in the top-flight, where it is essentially a race to finish second best behind the worst Qarabağ side in a long, long time.
There has been a massive change of the times, not only at Qarabağ but in Azerbaijani football as a whole. There is no more free-reign spending, no more big budget transfers that would see the likes of Reynaldo, Nicolás Canales, Marat Izmailov, Flavinho, Winston Parks and Julius Wobay touch ground in the Land of Fires. No sir, the days of throwing money at Belgian flop Emile Mpenza are long gone. Instead, Azerbaijani clubs now have to shop in more modest markets, mostly in Sumgayit, where it looks like any player who does semi-well for the Sumgayit club gets snapped up by Qarabağ for a relative pittance.
These decisions clearly had an effect on what would become a domino effect, where one club seemed to fall after the other. Karvan, Baku, Simurg and most recently Khazar Lankaran have all collapsed. Sumgayit, funnily enough, is actually the only one of these clubs to still be operating at the same level they previously were, with Kapaz, Turan Tovuz and Shuvalan all now playing in lower divisions, Keshla still toiling with financial difficulties, and Zira literally ceasing to exist.
Well before then, though, a consensus had grown that there were simply not enough home-grown players of the requisite quality. When Qarabağ shocked Europe with a team of players all born within 30 miles of Aghdam, there was an overflowing pool of natural talent.
For various reasons – among them the proliferation of alternative leisure pursuits and the demise of the street games which fostered the skills of many a ball artist – that once-bountiful oasis of talent has steadily dried up.
The bigger responsibility lies with the clubs. Qarabağ, who could have been a shining example along the lines of Altinordu, have placed no obvious emphasis on youth development. Locked into a quick-fix mentality, where beating Neftçi and Gabala to the league was all that mattered, the five-in-a-row champions have opted for buying ready-made first-teamers instead of fostering their own.
Criticising Azerbaijan’s ability to develop young players, many football fans and journalists called on the Azerbaijani clubs to pay into a national fund for regional youth training centres.
And that is proving to be true in Qarabağ’s case, especially when it comes to European football. Gurban Gurbanov has won the league comfortably in last few seasons, but his deals in the transfer market – the likes of Hannes Halldórsson, Simeon Slavchev, Dzon Delarge, Jakub Rzeznicak and others have to come under question.
As is always the case, Qarabağ will sweep aside the other nine sides in the Azerbaijan Premier League, but when they come up against a team with a little bit of experience and technical ability, they fail spectacularly. One only needs to take a look at their Europa League campaign, of which they are currently dead last in. As last week’s 6-1 defeat at the hands of Sporting Lisbon proved, their reign only extends as far as Azerbaijan’s borders go.
That comes down to not having any sort of challenge whatsoever domestically. It’s the feeling of self-importance and arrogance that has probably been Qarabağ’s downfall, and without a challenge in the Premier League this season, that level of complacency will only reach levels of delusion – if it hasn’t got to that stage already.
The reality is that whatever happens to Qarabağ and whatever changes may be made, it’s too little, too late. With or without Qarabağ in the top tier, the standard of Azerbaijani football is not going to get any better. The people in charge of running the game are out of touch and lacking in vision. Azerbaijani football is broken, perhaps forever.
By: Fuad Alakbarov