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
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