Leading French football magazine tells the story of FC Qarabağ – ‘the refugees’ team’

In anticipation of the Europa League AS Saint-Etienne - FC Qarabag match on 27 November at the home ground of Saint-Étienne (the Verts/Greens), the local edition of But! (Goal) published a history of FC Qarabağ. Displaced by the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, this is the team that always plays away from home. This biweekly magazine has an estimated circulation of 25,000.

The translated article is below. View the French article here.

Europa League

FC Qarabağ is not just another football club

On Thursday evening, the Verts will play against Qarabağ at the ‘Cauldron’. The Azerbaijani champion is very little known in France, but is called ‘the refugees’ team’ in its home country, being a symbol of hope for the people of Agdam who had to flee their town after it was destroyed and occupied by Armenian forces.

Next Thursday’s game between Saint-Étienne and FC Qarabağ (FCQ) will bring together two of the most popular and historic teams in their respective countries. We all know who the ‘Verts’ are, whereas we don’t know the Azerbaijanis so well. Their history started when war in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in 1993. Armenia wanted this region to be independent and undertook an invasion. Agdam – FCQ’s hometown – was besieged by Armenian troops. In 1993 though, Agdam’s football team club won the Domestic League and Cup double after a crazy scenario. After winning the domestic cup in Baku, FCQ returned home to Agdam to play the last few league games of the season. After two home matches, FCQ returned to Baku for a decisive match. The Armenian force started to destroy Agdam while they were away: “The town got invaded, rampaged and annihilated. The war caused considerable damage. There was nothing left”, explained Elshan Mustafayev, a native of Agdam and doctoral student of Political Science in Lyon. The players learned the terrible news two days before the final. Despite the circumstances, they decided to play the match, which they courageously won, yet refused to celebrate their victory. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of their country as the first club from outside Baku to win the Azerbaijani League.

Some players returned to their families in Agdam, despite the conflict. Others enrolled in the armed forces. As Imarat stadium was destroyed by bombardments, the club became homeless and played their home games here and there in various stadiums in the east of the country. Despite the many challenges, FCQ never stopped playing in the League. Elshan Mustafayev recalls: “The team lost their stadium, their estate and their resources. The club even launched calls by the end of the 1990s because it could not afford to play any longer. But Qarabağ always played.”

Qarabağ: the homeless club of Azerbaijan

In 2001, the company Azersun, which holds several companies in agribusiness and construction, began to sponsor FCQ and allowed them to settle in Baku and play their home games at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium – which they share with the Azerbaijani National Team. A stadium was also built in the Agdam region, but this remains virtually unused, firstly due tor security reasons, as it is under direct threat from Armenian snipers, but also because players had to travel over 300km and five hours, which is a tall order for any opponent. “I think this is a very symbolic gesture, but deep in my heart I think it’s a pity that they decided to settle here in Baku. However, it means they can attract better players, because it’s very challenging for players to undertake a return trip of around eight hours to Agdam for training”, explains Arthur Huizinga, a Dutch freelance journalist and writer in the short film Offside, which focuses on the club.

The supporters follow their team for every match in Baku. There is a bus between Agdam and Baku so they can attend the games: “Qarabağ is a source of pride to all those who lost their homes and a bond of cohesion. After Agdam was humiliated, good results by the team really mattered to people”, explains Elshan Mustafayev. FCQ is known as the ‘refugees’ club’ and has never really played at home since 1993, the year they won the Domestic League and never had chance to celebrate that feat. There are two horses of a very rare breed – Qarabağs – on the club’s logo. The team became a living legend in the region and earned the nickname of ‘Knights’from their supporters. This all goes beyond football for Azerbaijanis. The club’s name is very important because it represents the area occupied by the Armenians and which is no longer controlled by Azerbaijan.”

A team supported by a whole people

The year 2008 marked a turning point when Gurban Gurbanov – the best goal-scorer in Azerbaijan with 12 goals and 65 caps – became the Team Manager. Then the team achieved very good results again. In 2009, FCQ won the National Cup for the third time. On 7 May 2014, they won the league for the second time. They even played in the Europa League on five occasions – three of which ended in playoffs (in 2009–10, 2010–11 and 2013–14). This year, the Azerbaijanis qualified for the group phase, but after they lost in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions’ League and they got a second chance through the playoffs for the Europa League. “Playing the Europa League is important from a social viewpoint, because the people of Agdam are proud, but it also is a national matter – supporters from other clubs come to the stadium and support FCQ because it is an Azerbaijani team playing at the European level. I think whenever FCQ plays the Europa League, a good half of the supporters come from other clubs. It is also an advantage for the government and public authorities that the name of Qarabağ is brought up in the Europa League, even though they don’t help the club so much.”

The Azerbaijanis are in form. Inter and Dnipro have seen better days.

FCQ increased their leadership in the Azerbaijani league last week, which they started with an away win (2:4) thanks to the Swiss player Emeghara (2 goals), Brazilian Reynaldo and the Dutchman George (1 goal each). Then they edged Azal (2:1) with goals by Qurbanov and Yaqublu. In Italy, Inter Milan drew (1:1) against AC Milan – it was Roberto Mancini’s first match as Inter’s new coach. And in Ukraine, Dnipro also drew home to the humble Oujhorod (1:1). The Croatian striker Kalinić scored the opening goal for the Ukrainian squad before he was sent off in the very last minute.

Elshan Mustafayev

“Qarabag supporters are very confident”

Elshan Mustafayev is a native of Agdam and a doctorate student in Political Science. He agreed to share his views for But! Saint-Etienne about the next game.

But! Saint-Etienne: Elshan, do Qarabağ supporters believe they can win this match in the ‘Cauldron’?

Elshan Mustafayev: Our supporters are very confident. Hundreds of people have been posting about it on Facebook and other forums for several days. Supporters in the stadium will all expect at least a draw. FCQ almost won in Baku. We were so close to winning! A draw would be satisfying because we don’t want the result to be less favourable. But we all believe the team is capable of winning here.

Before the game was announced, had the Azerbaijanis ever heard of Saint-Étienne?

Yes. My best Azerbaijani friend is their fan! Saint-Étienne achieved so much in the past. In Azerbaijan, people have their opinions and make predictions about their games. This is a very well-known team back in Azerbaijan.

Is it a milestone for any player to play against Saint-Étienne?

It doesn’t matter much. It could be Saint-Étienne or any other club. What does matter is that an Azerbaijani team plays in the Europa League. Supporting the team in France is a great opportunity. It makes our team known and, most importantly, the team’s nameis a source of pride for all the fans.

You said that you “fear some misbehaviour”. Can you please explain why?

Armenian supporters can provoke our fans at anytime. It already happened when we played in the southern part of Cyprus and in Poland too. In and around Saint-Étienne, the population of Armenian origin is somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 persons. Some of them are activists, others belong to organisations. We fear Armenians brandishing flags of the unrecognised regime in Nagorno-Karabakh and chanting provocative slogans. This could cause some trouble during and after the match. I hope the local authorities will remind everyone that such activities are forbidden, as our fans could become agitated.