Qarabag have coach Gurban Gurbanov to thank for unlikely European success
Sometimes the political aspects of football seem unavoidable, and that is the case with Qarabag FK. Whenever the team that proudly represents the ghost town of Agdam, Azerbaijan, is mentioned, one is bound to explain everything about the fact that they were forced to leave their stadium more than two decades ago, while the long-standing crisis remains unresolved.
Although that is certainly of interest, putting the emphasis on Qarabag's background means making significant injustice to their pure footballing success. As they are preparing to face Inter at San Siro in the biggest game in the club's history, we should focus on the team itself, and the fabulous work of coach Gurban Gurbanov, who could prove to be one of football's rising stars.
Gurbanov is just 42, but he has been in charge at Qarabag since 2008, achieving extraordinary results in Europe. The list is impressive to say the least. The small Azeri outfit recorded a great win over Rosenborg in the Europa League's second qualifying round in 2009, keeping a clean sheet for 180 minutes, then went on to give Twente a very decent fight. A year later, they beat Wisla Krakow twice in the third qualifying round. In 2011, Club Brugge lost a return leg in Baku after winning at home. Last season, Qarabag won three ties in Europe, most significantly against Piast Gliwice of Poland and Gefle of Sweden, before succumbing to Eintracht Frankfurt.
They had never made it into the group stages before 2014, though. That was taken care of in spectacular fashion this term. After winning the club's first domestic championship title since 1993, Gurbanov continued his success when giving Red Bull Salzburg a huge fright in Champions League qualifiers, winning 2-1 in Azerbaijan, and only losing 2-0 in the return, coming close to taking the game into extra time. Falling into the Europa League, Qarabag remarkably threw Twente aside on away goals, drawing 0-0 at home and 1-1 away, thus getting into the group stage for the first time. The team's directors could be forgiven for taking pictures of the historic draw on their mobile phones.
Such achievement is even more significant if we take into account the club's philosophy. Azeri football is quite stable financially, and many mediocre foreigners found their way into the league during recent seasons, as Arsenal legend Tony Adams, who worked as a coach at Gabala three years ago, knows only too well. When Gurbanov took charge at Qarabag, however, he demanded the squad be mostly local. "We had to say goodbye to most of the foreigners, only leaving three of them -- those who were irreplaceable. Now 20 out of 23 players in our squad are Azeri." the coach proudly told 1news.az in 2011.
Secondly, Qarabag took on all their challenges in Europe without fear. Gurbanov has always insisted that the team should play to their strengths, rather than being afraid of the opponents' abilities. Ahead of the games against Red Bull, for example, the coach said: "Salzburg are very quick, but we won't be slower than them" -- and was indeed true to his word.
Thirdly, Qarabag try to win their games playing attractive football. Gurbanov is a longtime admirer of Pep Guardiola and was especially excited to visit Barcelona in the beginning of 2012, having fruitful conversations both with their legendary coach and sports director Andoni Zubizarreta. His team were compared to the Catalans in local press, and some even dubbed them the "Caucasian Barcelona."
"We can't be seriously compared to them, but there are certain similarities in style," Gurbanov said at the time. "It is especially impressive that former Barcelona players work as coaches at youth teams, and their training process is fascinating. It won't be easy to implement it at Qarabag in the immediate future, but that is our long-term goal."
The club has always believed in its visionary coach. In September 2012, Gurbanov resigned after some poor results in the local league, only to be persuaded to stay. Qarabag try to stand by their principles, even though they were forced to sign more foreigners than they would like to lately -- but this fact also says a lot about Gurbanov's flexibility.
"We are always looking for local talents, but we also must be realistic. The level of competition is increasing all the time, and better foreigners arrive to our league -- those who have experience at decent clubs in Europe. In order to remain relevant, we have to play by the rules. In the near future we should have a lot of Azeri players again, but right now something is sacrificed," Gurbanov said after winning the historic title.
Now Qarabag have players with decent pasts as well, and the most talented of them is Reynaldo. The 25-year-old Brazilian striker was brought to Europe by Anderlecht in 2010, and while never really fulfilling his potential in Belgium he proved to be a huge hit in Azerbaijan, scoring 29 goals in all competitions last term. This season, Reynaldo was sensational in Europe again, netting the winner against Salzburg.
Gurbanov's debut at the group stage was very close to perfect. St Etienne arrived at Tofik Bakhramov stadium in Baku as clear favourites, but the French side were lucky to escape with a goalless draw, and they have keeper Stephane Ruffier to thank for that. Now an even bigger challenge awaits the Azeri champions as they visit Inter, a week before Italy play Azerbaijan in a Euro 2016 qualifier.
Local specialists believe in Gurbanov more than in national team coach Berti Vogts. Boyukagha Hajiyev, a former coach of Neftchi Baku who had a remarkable 2-2 draw with Inter reserves at San Siro in Europa League two years ago, told Azerisport.com: "I think Qarabag have their chances. The most important thing will be to believe that they can win. They will get points if they play like against St Etienne," but at the same time stated: "Our national team won't get anything."
Gurbanov has already been linked with the national team in the past, and his chance will surely come, but he could also be tempted to try his luck in a bigger league -- possibly Russia or Turkey. He deserves his chance to prove himself on the big stage, and stunning the world with a good result against Inter will do his reputation no harm.
Michael is an experienced European football writer, who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo, amongst others.