From hero to zero: The demise of Neftchi Baku

Many football supporters like to think that their team is “more than a club”. In Neftchi Baku’s case, the claim is true. For much of its 81-year history, its accomplishments were a source of pride for supporters throughout Azerbaijan, if not for supporters of Qarabağ FK, Azerbaijan’s other big club.

Off the pitch, Neftchi was run in unglamorous fashion. It exemplified traditional Soviet worker virtues such as “strength, unity, pride and decency”, says Arif Aliyev. “This has now been turned on its head.”

For many fans, it was that Europa League qualifier against Albania’s KF Skënderbeu Korçë which foreshadowed the ensuing decline. Only a year previously, Neftchi had reached the group stage of the same competition, but it wasn’t just the poor result that stayed in people’s minds.

Neftchi draws much of its support from supporters in Baku and the Absheron peninsula, many of whom identify themselves as working-class. Eldar Bahlulzadeh, who saw the game that night, says: “It seemed to me that too many supporters are more concerned about defending the club’s former success than supporting Neftchi.”

Today Neftchi Baku is a faded emblem of a faltering belief in Azerbaijan: an Azerbaijani institution in Soviet Union and a Soviet institution in Azerbaijan. Its rise and fall reflects not only how a football club lost sense of financial reality but much of its identity, too. Its story represents a flawed microcosm of contemporary Soviet history of Baku.

Yet the ordinary Neftchi supporter has been deserving of sympathy over the past decade. “Neftchi has suffered from every financial calamity imaginable,” said life-long fan Zaur Gambarov. “It is the longest running business saga in Azerbaijani football history.”

Azerbaijani football has rarely been run in parallel with its European neighbours. The Azerbaijan Premier League took shape during the early 1990s, and it is studded with clubs run not as businesses but as the playthings of oligarchs, political clans, and, primarily, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, also known as SOCAR.

Now its biggest international stars have left for teams in other countries, and the once-mighty side is struggling at the bottom end of the Premier League table. What’s more, fans have begun to speculate that the fall of Neftchi could precipitate trouble for the country’s other major teams. For Azerbaijan, the timing of the case could hardly be more awkward: in just a few years, it will host the Euro 2020, and the Azerbaijan FA is keen to project global power and prestige. With Neftchi shamed, and more teams potentially to follow, the standing of Azerbaijani football could be in tatters before a single ball of the tournament is kicked.

Attendance at Neftchi matches has fallen since the Soviet era: people no longer relish the team’s association with the oil workers. Today, the club rarely breaks four figures for home matches; last season its average turnout was a little more than few hundreds.

And, like all Azerbaijani teams, its revenue from TV deals is fairly microscopic: the country’s Premier League receives just few thousand dollars per year for broadcast rights. This means that, to compete with Europe’s medium players, Azerbaijan’s clubs need huge benefactors. And in modern Azerbaijan that can only mean the state.

Since mid-1990s, Neftchi has received the great majority of its funding from SOCAR, an oil giant that owns the whole club. Then it all went wrong. In 2014, oil prices caused the country’s economy to crater. A weak currency made Neftchi’s wage bill, already massive, exorbitant.

Today dozens of clubs, such as PSG and Man City, are run by billionaires, oligarchs, or autocracies—yet they still bring colossal amounts of money in, from shirt and ticket sales and shares of domestic broadcast deals. With dwindling gates and no international profile, Neftchi, on the other hand, was relying solely on SOCAR.

For many Neftchi fans today, the club’s current trophy-winning dreams, though, are over: ahead of the Azerbaijan Premier League’s resumption following its winter break, Neftchi sits eleventh of eight clubs. And, looking elsewhere in the table, it’s probably just the beginning of a wave of new troubles for Azerbaijani football.

Nicolás Canales, the Chilean striker, remembers better days, when Neftchi was in the Europa League and drew against Inter Milan at San Siro. It was one of the best times of his career, he said. “I wish that Neftchi gets back to this level again.”

Writer: Fuad Alakbarov

Photo: Wikimedia