On August 23rd, 2017, Qarabağ FK (Qarabağ Futbol Klubu) the Azerbaijani football, AKA soccer, team, qualified for the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League group stage, being the first ever Azerbaijani football team to achieve such result.
The home town of Qarabağ FK, arguably Azerbaijan’s greatest football club of present day and some would argue of all-time, is Ağdam, a town occupied by the Armenian armed forces since 1993 and has coined the name “ghost town” or “Hiroshima of the Caucasus,” due to its complete destruction and total ethnic cleansing following the occupation. Qarabağ FK is the only football team among UEFA 32 qualified teams that cannot play its home matches in its own stadium because their city is out of bound, and thus, since 1993, the team has played its home games in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
I am told by football (aka soccer) fans that Azerbaijan’s football performance has improved a lot and nowadays Qarabağ FK football team is playing to attest to that.
Last Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017, Qarabağ FK beat Copenhagen; the game ended 2-2 on aggregate with Qarabağ FK progressing on away goals and becoming the first Azerbaijani team to make the Champions League group stage. With that they have an entire nation looking up to them and expecting more wins. This is the story of a soccer refugee club lighting a spark of hope in a million people.
For way too many people, the conflict with Armenia, taking place in Azerbaijan’s west, has touched all aspects of life, including football players and their fans.
The ongoing violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan has displaced more than a million Azerbaijanis from their land and homes, including tens of thousands from Ağdam, making them IDPs (Internally Displaced People).
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turned Ağdam, formerly a vibrant city of 40,000 inhabitants, to be known as the world’s largest ghost town, claiming 6,000 people killed and untold lives in ruins. In that war, the Qarabağ FK’s Imarat stadium was badly hit, turned unfit to hold games.
Notwithstanding them being stadiumless, Qarabağ FK, regrettably, also known as ‘the refugee club’, played, and plays well. In the past four years, the team has won the Azerbaijan’s Premier League Championship and brought to their country some Champions League and Europa League success. In 1999, the Qarabağ FK, also called ‘the Horsemen’ for the two horses in its emblem brand, symbolizing the legendary Karabakh region horses, became the first Azerbaijani team to win in European competition, in a game away from home, in which they beat the Israeli team Maccabi Haifa 2-1, in Baku.
The focus of the team, backed by Azersun, a state-backed holding company, is around a core of Azerbaijani talent and in that Qarabağ FK represents not only a proud Azerbaijan, as a whole, but also acting as a symbol of hope and pride for one million refugees who were driven from their home, including the people of Ağdam town. More so, the games in general, and the team’s success in particular, give its supporters kind of respite from the war, or time to somewhat heal, be happy, and feel the sense of being victorious.
The Essence of Being a ‘Refugee Team’ Has a Whole New Aspect.
Qarabağ FK, the Karabakh region refugees football club, is becoming a serious rival of the sport in Europe. This little soccer team is working hard to survive and thrive.
Qarabağ, ‘Karabakh’ in English, is the Azerbaijani mountainous region of western Azerbaijan. Ağdam is located in the valley of rivers Kur and Araz, at the Karabakh plateau close to mountains of Lesser Caucasus, at the altitude of 410-1365 meters above sea level.
In the year 1357 A.D., it was the first time Ağdam, an anciently historical Azerbaijani town, was mentioned in historical documents. A stone plate, preserved at the ancient cemetery, dated 1174, attests to an ancient fortress there and this ancient plate also confirms the near Ağdam Shakhbulag settlement’s quarry, where limestone was mined. This exact limestone was used to construct the fortress called Ağdam, meaning,’white roof.’
On July 23, 1993, Armenia invaded most of the Ağdam district, aggressively seizing 882 sq. km. of Ağdam’s total 1,094 sq. km. territory, including one city and 80 villages, resulting in some 128,000 inhabitants of the district becoming IDPs and dwelling in 875 settlements across Azerbaijan.
Ağdam Before and After the Occupation
Just like the loss of other districts in the Karabakh region, the occupation of Ağdam was a painful loss for Azerbaijan, which the Armenian armed forces razed to the ground, destroying historical monuments, cemeteries, hospitals, libraries, schools, offices and facilities, residential buildings, industrial and construction enterprises, cultural centers, one theater, three mosques, and two museums. Today the town remains without inhabitants and totally in ruins. This situation has coined for Ağdam the terms such as “ghost town” or the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus.”
More than 6,000 people died during the fighting in Ağdam.
The ongoing illegal occupation of Ağdam and other Azerbaijan’s territories by Armenia, as well as the plight of the Azerbaijani civilians, expelled from their native lands, serve as yet another reminder that the international community must vigorously push for justice, which can only be restored once the occupation ends and the displaced people are allowed to return to their homes.
At this junction, Armenia is occupying over 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions, after claiming its South Caucasus neighbor territory, a claim that had caused a lengthy war in the early 1990s. The UN Security Council has adopted four resolutions demanding the withdrawal of all Armenian troops, but they have not been enforced to this day.
Everyone with a heart knows about the Sarajevo, Tuzla and Srebrenica, Bosnia siege. But what about Khojaly, Kalbajar or Ağdam, in Azerbaijan? What about the million refugees, now IDPs, including the members of the Qarabağ-Ağdam Football Club and their families?
And the team had been hit very hard by the war.
This is a unique, and rather violent story of the refugee Qarabağ-Ağdam ‘Horsemen’ football (soccer) team and their incredible trajectory in the Euro-football scene over the past few years.
Azerbaijan is the only country in the world bordering both Russia and Iran and Qarabağ-Ağdam is a little Azerbaijani football club that has the unique and dubious distinction of being the only registered international Football Club (FC/FK) not being able to play a ‘home’ game in more than 24 years.
This is sort of like the New York Yankees not being able to play in their Yankee Stadium, which is also the home park for New York City FC of Major League Soccer (MLS).
The Qarabağ-Ağdam Horsemen football team’s last home game took place in Ağdam on May 12, 1993 – under an incoming missile fired by the invading Armenian army, at the fiery-hot end of the 1988-94 Karabakh War. The game’s result was a 1-0 victory over Turan IK, a rival Azerbaijan Premier League team, from the town of Tovuz, which catapulted the Horsemen into Azerbaijan Cup finals.
Following the fall of Ağdam, in July 1993, the Horsemen’s years of exile began; and the list of insults grew much more.
For over two decades the Qarabağ-Ağdam Horsemen football team was forced to wander from stadium to stadium across the devastated Azerbaijani landscape. In 2002, a local firm named Azersun that specializes in agriculture, took ownership of the Horsemen football team and began investing in Qarabağ FK.
With the financial infusion, the Horsemen began to raise themselves up and out of the permanently displaced morass to become first local, then international contenders. Behind them is a bitter war, exile, and now fully inspired footballers on a long climb to international football heights and fame.
On May 7, 2014, the Qarabağ-Ağdam football team took their first Azerbaijan Premier League championship since 1993, some claim was once stolen from them. At the Group stage of the 2014-15 Europa League, they played against the football giants – Ukraine’s Dnipro, the French St- … tienne and the mighty Inter Milan of football-obsessed Italy, and achieved Olympian heights to finally put the Qarabağ-Ağdam club on the world’s football map.
Liking the soccer game, I looked up references from which I learned much about the Qarabağ-Ağdam football team’s history. It is a story worth-knowing.
Now the Horsemen are Back!
And last week Qarabağ FK became the first Azerbaijani team to qualify for the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League group stage. Being in Group C, it will be playing against Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, and Roma.
Fate has its own rues. Qarabağ FK Horsemen are exiled from their home but could shock the Champions League!
I asked Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, about this historic win. That’s what he said:
“Qarabag FK is more than a soccer club. They are a symbol of perseverance and determination of the Azerbaijani people. They are also an embodiment of my Nation’s pride and hope for the restoration of justice. I am sure the day is not far away when the Qarabag FK will again play their home games in Azerbaijan’s historic Karabakh region.”
We say Amen to that.