Oil boom fu­els Azer­bai­jani foot­ball fever

Pre­vi­ously a lit­tle-known for­mer Soviet state, Azer­bai­jan is start­ing to make a name for it­self on the world stage, largely due to its mush­room­ing foot­ball league. Backed by a num­ber of wealthy oil ty­coons, the league is be­gin­ning to at­tract a raft of top

Outlook - - CONTENTS - By Emil Guliyev

Pre­vi­ously a lit­tle-known for­mer Soviet state, Azer­bai­jan is mak­ing a name for it­self on the world stage, largely due to its mush­room­ing foot­ball league backed by a num­ber of wealthy oil ty­coons.

or a man­ager who has coached at Europe's most suc­cess­ful club, sign­ing up at a pro­vin­cial Azer­bai­jani foot­ball team might not seem a likely ca­reer move.

Af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with the bil­lion­aire owner of Azer­bai­jan's Khazar Lankaran, how­ever, for­mer Real Madrid coach John Toshack says that he was con­vinced enough to take the plunge ear­lier this year.

"I am the sort of per­son who is al­ways ready for a new chal­lenge and so I said, why not?'" Toshack, who has also coached the Wales na­tional team and played for Liver­pool, said.

Few foot­ball fans out­side the oil­rich re­pub­lic would likely be able to point out on a map Lankaran - a town of just over 80,000 on the Caspian Sea - or know much about Azer­bai­jan and the state of the game in the coun­try.

FBuoyed by bil­lions of dol­lars in oil rev­enues, over the past decade Azer­bai­jan has seen an eco­nomic boom un­der the rule of 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. Now, foot­ball seems to be catch­ing up. Owned by Az­eri-Turk­ish ship­ping mag­nate Mubariz Man­si­mov, who is 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 it was all just ru­mours. "When I got here I was re­ally sur­prised in a good way about the level of foot­ball in Azer­bai­jan," says Toshack. "In our team we've got some pretty top-class play­ers."

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

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