By Roy Delaney
So I was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, working at the 2012 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest. The regular football season was already over, but I discovered that their FA Cup final coincided with my trip, so I duly did what was right and good and abused my position as a member of Her Majesty’s Press, blagging a couple of plumb tickets to the party. And what a treat it turned out to be!
And so it was that my mate Andrew and I found ourselves in a battered cab weaving through traffic on the way to the dusty seaside suburb of Markadan and its luridly decorated Dalga Arena.
It’s a beautiful but strangely misplaced little stadium in the back of beyond that Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini turned up to open last year as a venue for the under-17 Women’s World Cup, and the locals seemed very pleased to be showing it off to we foreigners.
Our guide for the evening, a spirited local journalist called Habib, told us that the final is usually held at the massive and stately Tofig Bahramov Stadium (named after the local linesman who gave England that dubious goal in the 1966 World Cup), and would have had a crowd nearing 20,000.
But at that point they were sticking a roof on it as part of their eventually-unsuccessful Olympics bid, so instead we were stuck 25 miles out of town in a 6,500 capacity little shoebox that was possibly about half full at best. But by heavens did it still have an atmosphere!
The match was contested by two teams from the capital – perpetual league champions (and black and white stripe wearers) Neftchi and plucky local outsiders FK Baku (who play in blue and white hoops) – which made shipping all the fans out to the seaside seem just a little bit stranger.
Some local cynics tried to convince us that it was so the massed ranks of the European pop press didn’t get to see two gangs of lively fans going at it hammer and tongs in the fine squares of the city centre, but we thought it polite not to enquire too forcefully of our hosts, given the help and hospitality they’d already offered us.
The incredibly helpful chap from the Azeri FA advised us to get there early and enjoy the pre-match entertainment. Of course, we were expecting the regulation cheerleaders and military bands, but heck were we in for a surprise.
First off, a near endless parade of the country’s biggest pop stars (yes, they do have some) practically burst our ears shouting along to scratchy playback through an ear-shatteringly loud sound system that was echoing off the empty plastic seats. Better still was the terrific dance show, with wave after wave of excitable flag bearers, scantily clad girls juggling footballs and a whole lot of fellas prancing about in local costume.
Best of all was the raffle for a new car that was included with the ticket. There was much hoohaa and fanfare as the winning ticket was drawn, but sadly we didn’t win. Which is a shame, because we’d have loved to have played dodgems with the bonkers local traffic on the way home.
The match itself was lovely, flowing stuff. Neftchi had the best of the ball, and could knock it about with ease, but had difficulty doing anything with it in the box, while Baku defended well, and were especially dangerous on the break.
The crowds were pretty lively at each end, but the friendly funtime ended just after Baku scored their opener. When one young lad lit a flare, about a dozen policemen steamed in to try and drag him out. His mates didn’t like the look of this and started taking the coppers on, starting up an unseemly tug of war with the poor lad acting as some kind of meat rope. He eventually got dragged around the back (to his likely doom) on the 11-minute mark, much to the distaste of everyone else in the stadium.
From here on in, coins, lighters and big lumps of stuff rained down on the players any time they went near the touchline – which gave wing play an exciting added dimension of peril. A good half a dozen players appeared to cop a shot to the head… although we suspect that more than one of them were making it up to try to get the match stopped – especially after Baku went 2-0 up. But the officials were having none of it, and dutifully ignored the unrest.
Coins, lighters and big lumps of stuff rained down on the players any time they went near the touchline – which gave wing play an exciting added dimension of peril.
At half-time, Habib urged us to follow him, and took us to the press room. There before us stood a lavish buffet, groaning with the most amazing local food and drink. On a huge table the length of the room sat little plates of gorgeous savouries, masses of exotic cheeses and more baklava than you could sneak home in your trousers, all washed down with local pop that came in colours that surely don’t occur naturally.
As we nervously picked from the pile, trying to work out exactly what it was we were about to eat, the local journos and dignitaries stared at us, slightly confused, as if we were a pair tramps who’d managed to gatecrash a wedding. Alan Green can keep his pies and oxtail soup, this was top-quality nosh!
When we were eventually ushered back to our seats, the rest of the game tootled along with little further incident, finishing 2-0 to Baku. The referee and his assistants had to be escorted from the pitch by 15 security guards, as he was surrounded by Neftchi officials, players and the few flag-wielding fans that had managed to escape the massive security cordon – although our new mate from the local press told us that this was nothing to get too excited about, and was actually par for the course around here.
A couple of months later, the Baku coach was banished from the field for attacking players at a youth match, so they certainly like it lively round those parts.
The standard of play was much higher than I’d imagined, and there were quite a few international players on show from places such as Brazil, Spain, Costa Rica and many of the ex-Balkans.
It turns out that Neftchi are owned by a massive local oil company, so they’ve literally got money to burn, and have been paying many of their higher-profile players huge seven-figure sums to kick about half-heartedly at the end of their careers in this unlikely spot on the Caspian Sea.
As foreign footballing experiences go, this was certainly one of my stranger excursions, but the generosity of the local officials, passion of the fans and surprisingly high quality of the match itself made it one that I definitely won’t forget in a hurry, and has given me a thirst to go back to that neck of the woods and sample just a bit more of their tasty wares.
Photos by Andrew James Main