Thursday, September 23

Wales must not play in conflict-ravaged Baku if Azerbaijan themselves cannot | Barney Ronay | Football

OROn Tuesday night, the Azerbaijan men’s soccer team drew 0-0 with Luxembourg. Three days earlier, the Azerbaijan men’s soccer team drew 0-0 with Montenegro. Three days earlier, the Azerbaijani men’s soccer team drew 0-0 with Slovenia. Four weeks earlier, the Azerbaijan men’s soccer team drew 0-0 with Cyprus.

0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0. Over the course of this streak, Azerbaijan has reduced its game from six shots on goal to just the last time out. The natural end point of this graph, the actual moment of fulfillment, would see Azerbaijan complete their next 0-0 with zero shots on target. Progress has been good so far. But only scratching from scratch will really work from here.

It’s not just about hard numbers. Chuck in a succession of empty and foggy Central European venues, plus an overall two-goal streak in his last 10 games, and there’s a case that this is already the most overtly nihilistic streak in international football history, a sort of real. time performance art, the Azerbaijan Football Association’s answer to Andy Warhol’s five-hour film by actor John Giorno lying in bed asleep.

Although to be fair, Giorno does turn his back at one point, while Azerbaijan has remained at a fairly rigid 4-4-2 throughout.

At that moment, and with some sadness, it is necessary to acknowledge the intrusion of real life in all this frivolity. That scoreless streak is not the most remarkable thing in Azerbaijan football right now. Of much greater importance is the fact that all those games were played away from home, two months later. UEFA ruling that football is no longer safe in Azerbaijan due to the war with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

This has been a bloody affair. Russia estimates that there have been more than 4,000 deaths. The second city of Azerbaijan, Ganja, has been hit by Scud missiles. Baku has declared the state of martial law. A fragile-looking truce has been established. But the advice of the UK Foreign Office is not to go to Azerbaijan if you can help it.

Except, apparently, if you’re Welsh. As absurd as it may sound, according to the current UEFA calendar, the Welsh team will show up in Baku six months from now for their Euro 2020 tournament camp, a prelude to two group games at the Olympic Stadium.

This is still the plan. Get your passports out to the Welsh fans. Explore the local bars. Ignore the local curfew and the UK government’s suggestion that terrorists are likely to “try to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan.” Get ready for a soccer party. In the words of the Euro 2020 motto, “Let’s really live it.” Although perhaps, as fleets of military drones descend, it is not so real.


The Baku Olympic Stadium ahead of Azerbaijan’s 0-0 draw with Luxembourg, part of a four-game sequence without goals. Photograph: Aziz Karimov / Reuters

The most obvious point here is that any plans to play soccer in Azerbaijan next summer must be scrapped immediately. Uefa will surely end up announcing it very soon. But the UK government should take the lead here and insist on immediate rescheduling. UEFA may be dancing to try to placate its host partners. But there is no sensible reason to go down that path.

This is not to suggest that soccer fan troubles are in any way central to what is a long-standing and painful disaster. Armenians maintain that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is historically Armenian. It became part of Azerbaijan when Stalin reordered the region in the 1920s. With the collapse of the USSR, Armenia tried to claim it. Nagorno-Karabakh became a disputed middle ground. Azerbaijan launched a full mobilization to reclaim its legal territory in September this year.

Indicate displacement, death and an alarmed global diaspora. Kim Kardashian’s posts in Armenia for her 250 million followers on social media are considered a significant geopolitical lever. In response, Azerbaijan has launched a message of support from (seriously) Ronaldinho.

And right now, the world of nondescript UEFA competition and anthems seems really far away. All of which raises a more specific question. Why exactly is European football heading to oil-rich Baku in the first place?

It can be argued that all of this comes from the same place. Regional “strongmen”, in this case Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, elected in succession to his father Heydar Aliyev, tend to enjoy postures in all their forms, football and otherwise.

It is certainly regrettable that the public image of Azerbaijan has been tainted in this regard. It has been only three years since the Azerbaijan laundromat scandal broke out, a circulation of billions of pounds of dirty money in Europe, apparently with the intention of promoting Azerbaijan’s global reputation. Several European politicians have been accused of accepting what were essentially large sums from the government of Azerbaijan.

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There is no established connection to soccer. But the timeline is certainly unfortunate from a public relations point of view. 2012-2014: Laundry scandal in Azerbaijan. September 2014: Baku selected as the venue for Euro 2020 by Uefa. Undoubtedly, the UEFA president at the time, Michel Platini, was completely unaware of the laundry. When news of his existence broke, Platini had left his post and had been expelled from football for four years in 2015 for a payment made to him by FIFA that was deemed “dishonest”. Platini had at least a chance to open the Baku Olympic Stadium, which is still lined up as a home away from home for Wales a few months from now.

What nonsense this tournament has become! It is a sad irony that Euro 2020 was originally billed in 2012 as the product of a united Europe, a place where you can get on a plane anywhere, and where anywhere is the same as everywhere. Without borders, without borders: here was the football celebration of the end of all that history.

Eight years later, welcome to our world, a place where Azerbaijan has four zero to zero in a row, but there is still nowhere to play their fifth because home has become impossible. It seems inconceivable that Wales would end up making that trip. But it would be better for everyone if a decision was made as soon as possible, and with a clear clue as to the exact reason.

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