Oil Boom Fuels Rise Of Football In Azerbaijan As Mega-Rich Clubs Lure Big Talent
Backed by "billions of dollars in oil revenues," Azerbaijan has "seen an economic boom under the authoritarian rule of strongman President Ilham Aliyev that has seen ritzy skyscrapers shoot up in the capital city Baku and the country play host to events such as the Eurovision song contest," according to the AFP. Now, "football seems to be catching up." Owned by Azeri-Turkish shipping magnate Mubariz Mansimov -- who served as a Soviet-era intelligence officer and is also known by his adopted Turkish surname Gurbanoglu -- Khazar Lankaran "is one of the clubs leading the way." The current squad "has a smattering of South Americans and Spaniards" and the club "was linked to a mega-bucks contract offer for former Arsenal winger and Russia captain Andrey Arshavin last season" -- although officials there say that "it was all just rumours." Khazar Lankaran "is not the only team that has significant financial backing." Current champions Neftci Baku "are supported by state oil and gas giant SOCAR, which earlier this year became one of UEFA's major sponsors." Across town, FC Baku "are backed by Hafiz Mammadov, the founder of a business group with interests in sectors from oil to transport, who also has links to French club Lens and Spanish side Atletico Madrid." Elsewhere, Gabala FC in central Azerbaijan "is run by the sons of one of the country's richest and most powerful politicians and boasted former Arsenal defensive legend Tony Adams as coach a few years back." This "has all seen Azerbaijan touted as the next former Soviet state that could have an impact on the European stage." For the time being, Azerbaijani football "still has a long way to go and although facilities have improved, matches are often played in front of miniscule crowds." Experts said that while the change is evident, fans "may soon be demanding more return for the money the clubs are pouring into the game." Ikhtiyar Asgarov, who runs football website Apasport, said, "It could be argued that with the amount of money being invested we would want to have greater development" (AFP, 8/20).