Baku, Azerbaijan. Home to the Tofiq Bakhramov Stadium, named after the country’s World Cup winner.
How so? Go back to 1966, wait for Geoff Hurst to rattle the underside of the German bar, and look at the lino who gives the goal. Yup, that’s Comrade Bakhramov reporting for duty. Popularly but wrongly remembered around the world as ‘the Russian linesman’ (in the USSR, everyone was Russian), he was Baku born-and-bred. The national stadium, previously named after Stalin, then Lenin, took Tofiq’s name following his death in 1993. His statue, whistle at the ready, stands outside.
So much for real memories. A shock 1-0 win over Finland in March 2007, is a host of false memories. The mind loves to add drama: a late goal becomes last-minute winner, bobbling agonisingly over the line after a deflected shot from a corner. Reality, as indicated by our good friends at YouTube, suggests otherwise. Midfielder Emin Imamaliev scored in the 83rd minute with a cleanly hit half volley – not exactly the last minute and certainly not a scuffed effort. Stranger still, the scoreboard in the stadium records the goal as a 72nd-minute strike. For Imamaliev, winning one of the last of his 41 caps, it was the first and last goal for his country. It also secured the only competitive win of his international career.
And that packed house? Well, they were mostly outside, lured away from the TV sets in the dying moment of the game. Only 14,000 tickets were sold in a 30,000-seater stadium. But on the final whistle the square at Genclik, right in front of the stadium, was a mass of celebrating fans. Cars roared past, horns blaring and flags waving. Not only did the fans who watched the game stick around for the party, it felt like half of Baku headed over to join in the fun. It’s traditional to observe that FA Cup shocks see the underdogs ‘celebrating as if they’d won the cup itself’ and that’s exactly what was happening here.
Why was it such a big deal? Well, the stats tell that story. Prior to this game Azerbaijan had won a grand total of two Euro qualifiers, one of those against Liechtenstein. Finland, with Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal, Sami Hyypia in defence and the legendary Jari Litmanen as the playmaker, had serious hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008. Azerbaijan slumped to a 5-0 defeat in Poland the previous Saturday and the mood among the local fans was grim. In hindsight, the stage was set for a huge upset. At the time it felt more like a question of how many Finland might score.
Azerbaijan frustrated the visitors, hustling and harrying from the off. Finland looked lethargic: chances were scuffed, shots spooned away. Eventually a team that conceded just seven goals in 14 qualifiers was undone by a routine set piece pinged out to the ‘D’ for Imamaliev to grab the winner.
That goal set the terraces alight – almost literally. The stadium didn’t run to tip-up seats, so rather than press their buttocks directly onto dusty plastic, most fans brought newspaper along to sit on. With an unexpected victory in sight, these papers were transformed into blazing torches heralding the win. This scene so alarmed the authorities that by the time Azerbaijan’s clubs were playing Champions League or UEFA Cup qualifiers later that year there was a strict ban on taking paper into the ground.
All this was pre-renovation. Today the Bakhramov stadium is a smart, roofed affair. Back then it was a crumbling concrete bowl, not greatly changed from when work was completed by German POWs in the mid-40s. Oddly, one side of the pitch was left open, giving the initial floorplan the shape of a Cyrillic letter ‘C’, the first letter of Stalin’s name. A small, notionally VIP, stand had gone to plug that gap; subsequent work has added a more impressive stand on that side.
The shock result ultimately had a greater footballing impact on Finland than on Azerbaijan. The Nordic nation’s embarrassment put a huge hole in its qualification hopes and in the end one of the strongest Finnish teams of recent years slipped to fourth, level on points with Serbia, while Portugal and Poland progressed.
At the bottom of the table the outcome was marred by political squabbling – Azerbaijan were drawn alongside Armenia and amid rising tensions over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict both games were scratched with no points awarded. The Azeris ended up dead last, despite recording only their third competitive victory. That 5-0 drubbing in Poland was eclipsed by a 1-6 reverse at home to Serbia; a 2-0 defeat against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal was greeted with derision and calls for the head of coach Shahin Diniyev. Worse still for local fans, Armenia showed some signs of improvement under the guidance of Ian Porterfield. They beat Poland in Yerevan and managed creditable draws at home to Portugal and Serbia.
With Azerbaijan on the brink of positioning itself as a kind of Caspian Dubai and bidding to bring the debut European Games, F1 Grand Prix and – ambitiously – the Olympics to Baku, it was also a humiliating failure. In response, the amount of money in Azeri football was ramped up and, in recent years, the country has seen clubs progress to the group stages of the Europa League – unimaginable in 2007. But the national team continues to lag behind.
European Championship qualification, March 28, 2007.
Tofiq Bakhramov Stadium, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan 1 (Imamaliev) Finland 0