Maccabi Tel Aviv host Qarabag FK in UEFA Europa League Matchday One action on Thursday (22:00) at Bloomfield Stadium. This season will mark the first time since the 2017/18 campaign that the yellow-and-blue will be playing in the group stages of a continental competition in Group I which will also include La Liga side Villarreal and Sivasspor from Turkey.
Qarabag has won the Azerbaijan league championship seven straight seasons and has played the last six campaigns in European group stages including an appearance in the Champions League in 2017/18. Head Coach Gurban Gurbanov who has been in charge of the club since 2008 has a number of weapons at his disposal with Spaniard Jaime Moreno, Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir and Croatian Filip Ozobić to go along with veteran captain Maksim Medvedev who has made over 300 appearances for the club since 2006.
Although Qarabag is now a mainstay in European soccer, that has not always been the case and in fact the now Baku based club has a history riddled in conflict, war and exile making their story even that much more impressive.
To shed some light on the club and its enthralling background, The Sports Rabbi spoke to Dutch based journalist Arthur Huizinga who is an expert on Qarabag FK and the author of two books that explore the topic in-depth, “Offside: Football in Exile” together with Dirk-Jan Visser and “Never a Homegame. A football war in the Caucasus”.
“The football club Qarabag Agdam is used as a prism to talk about the impact of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh area which still exists today,” began Huizinga whose connection to the outfit began back in 2006.
“We took a research trip to the area of Nagorno-Karabakh and learned that there was now a ghost town called Agdam in the plains of Karabakh. We wanted to visit Agdam but that was not possible due to the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh which could only be accessed from Armenia. There were trenches with soldiers on both sides of the area and a military zone.”
“Although we couldn’t go to Agdam on that trip its name stayed in my head and I realized that there was a the team based in Baku called Qarabag Agdam. I understood that this team was from Agdam and there was a story that surrounded the team.”
Huizinga decided to return to Azerbaijan during the 2007/08 season with they objective of going to see Qarabag play, “I went to Baku and got into contact with people from the club as I was there to see the last game of the campaign. If I could get to the game, then the trip would be successful.”
Concerned that the game would be sold out and he would not even be able to find a jersey to take back to Holland, Huizinga desperately searched for someone who could help him, “The club’s press officer laughed really loudly when he heard about my predicament. In fact, I didn’t even need a ticket as there were only 30 fans that usually came to games and they didn’t even bother selling souvenirs. Thankfully I accomplished what I had set out to do and the players were very hospitable. They were surprised as to why someone outside of Azerbaijan would even be interested in the team.”
At this point Huizinga was hooked and had found a new love as he began his project in 2009 when Qarabag made their first serious run in European soccer as they faced Rosenborg in Europa League qualification. Ironically, prior to their tie with the Norway based squad, the first time the Azerbaijani squad had any success in continental competition was when they defeated Maccabi Haifa back in the first round of the 1999 edition of the UEFA Intertoto Cup.
After drawing with Rosenborg 0-0 in the first leg in Trondheim, Qarabag won the second leg back in Azerbaijan 1-0 on a spectacular goal by Rashad Sadygov, who just announced his retirement this past summer, to send the club on their way where they eventually were knocked out in the playoff round to Eredivisie squad Twente. However, the stage was set for the club’s future European success.
“The day that Qarabag defeated Rosenborg was July 23rd which is an ominous day in the club’s history. It was the day when the Battle of Agdam took place in 1993 and when Armenia occupied the city. The date now was also marked by their biggest victory in European football. People may say that football and politics aren’t related but they are. This showed that they truly are.”
Going back to 1993, Huizinga began describing how the battle was the beginning of the end of the club as it had been known up until that time. “The 1993 season was perhaps the best year in the club’s history as the war raged and the team played with local players. During that season which was played in Agdam at the Imrat “Palace” Stadium, games were played even when shelling was going on in the city. One time a mortar hit the stadium and they took a break for about an hour and then resumed play.”
“Qarabag qualified for both the League playoffs and the Cup Final which were both to be held in Baku. The club wrapped up the Azerbejani Cup on May 28th but then had to play the league final on August 1st as their hometown had now fallen and the players had lost all of their homes and belongings. They realized that they would not be be able to go back. Qarabag ended up winning 1-0 and became Double Winners but did not celebrate the victory.”
Following the 1993 season the club struggled to survive just like the other 700,000 refugees and moved from training ground to training ground and from stadium to stadium. The players from Agdam remained loyal to the club throughout and played without being paid. They even went to the market to raise money to buy food for lunch. In 2001 Azersun Holding, a local food manufacturing company began sponsoring the club and was able to giving some backing going forward.
Qarabag which now plays its home games in Baku actually held some of its matches at the Guzanli Olympic Stadium which is located in Quzanlı and is the most populous municipality in the Agdam Rayon of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and close to its original home base in Agdam which is now unaccessible.
The club may not have any traveling supporters but throughout Europe there are diaspora communities that will make sure to catch the Qarabag play. “We’re not taking about thousands, but about 30,” explained Huizinga. “At the home games, support has grown throughout the years and there is much interest by Azerbaijani soccer fans especially at continental clashes.”
Huizinga has been fortunate to be able to follow Qarabag around to their various European stops as they have regularly featured in the Europa League group stages since 2014/15 and also their lone Champions League appearance. “I was at the games in that Champions League campaign in 2017/18 and I have been fortunate to be able to witness the historic happenings of the club. I want to be there each time something happens.”
With the renewed battle raging on in the club’s original hometown, the players’ attention may not only be on their match against Maccabi Tel Aviv Huizinga stated, “There’s no shred of a doubt that Qarabag are preparing for a soccer game, but they are also looking at what is going on in the war.”