Good morning Azerbaijan. You wake up in
Baku, the country’s capital, look out of your hotel window – with an American
name and decor so like many others around the world, only that
here you’re at the very edge of Eastern Europe – and you see the
skyline of a unique city looking out over a crescent moon bay on
the Caspian Sea.
Baku is a new challenge with great
traditions behind it, close to three million inhabitants and an oil- and
gas-based economy. Now the Europa League comes to this city, the
largest in the Caucasus, with five football teams – one of
which is called Inter, as fate would have it.
Tonight’s Europa League opponents are
Neftchi, a club bearing an oil plant on its badge, a team that have won the
Azerbaijan Premier League a record seven times and play their home
matches at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium. Bahramov was the man
responsible for awarding Geoff Hurst’s famous ‘was it or wasn’t it’
goal in the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany.
The host nation went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy and ‘the Russian
linesman’, as Bahramov was dubbed by the English, acquired cult
status. He is probably the only referee to have a stadium named after
Who knows what he would have thought about all the glitz on display at the opening ceremony of the Under-17
Women’s World Cup on 22 September, when Jennifer Lopez and the Cirque
du Soleil lit up the stage. Rihanna will perform here on 5 October with
Shakira helping to round off the tournament at the closing ceremony on 13 October.
Baku is not a poor city: it’s a very attractive location, a tourist destination that oozes
history and culture. It’s an unknown world to
most Western Europeans, sitting as it does on Europe’s Eastern extremity, a five-hour flight from Milan with a
three-hour time difference to adjust to. And yet it’s well worth a
visit. The Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the universities
are multiplying and there’s a whole new footballing world to discover.
Neftchi are the
first Azerbaijani team to qualify for the group stage of a European competition. They
held Partizan to a goalless draw in their opening Group H match in
Serbia. In Wednesday’s pre-match press conference, their coach, Boyukagha
Hajiyev, labelled tonight’s fixture as "Azerbaijan’s biggest
match in the 21st century". Now it’s over to the pitch. (SW)