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Qarabag – Azeri pioneers in Champions League

Baku (AFP) – Qarabag face a Champions League baptism of fire on Tuesday when they visit English Premier League title-holders Chelsea to make history for Azerbaijan.

The club founded in the middle of the last century are the first team to appear at this lofty level from the energy-rich Caucasian country.

“It was our team’s long-held dream to play in Europe’s most presitgious club tournament,” the Azerbaijani champions’ manager Gurban Gurbanov told AFP.

“We felt the high level of the competition right after the draw teamed us up in a group with top clubs from England, Spain and Italy.”

Qarabag will play their home Group C ties in Baku, 365 kilometres away from their native city of Agdam in the rural centre of the country.

They are forced to use the Azerbaijani capital as a home-from-home as a result of military conflict with Armenia in the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, which Armenian separatists seized in a war in the early 1990s with a fragile truce in place since 1994.

Azerbaijan’s Champions League pioneers are assured enthusiastic support from across the country.

“The success of Qarabag had united all of us – young and old, men and women, the supporters of all Azerbaijan clubs,” Narmina Valiyeva, 29, told AFP.

“They’re our nation favourites. It’s especially important that Qarabag represent the occupied area and now the entire world will know about our problem.”

For Qarabag the prospect of locking horns with Europe’s elite would have seemed a distant dream back in the troubled early days of their existence.

Set up in 1951, the team from Agdam which represented the local farmers union was disbanded in 1968 after just three seasons in the championship of the then Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. 

Re-established in 1977 they played in the lower divisions of the Soviet league before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Qarabag claimed their first league title in independent Azerbaijan in 1993, the year when they were condemned to move to Baku because of the war in Nagorny Karabakh.

The exiled club experienced serious problems in keeping afloat before striking a sponsorship deal with Azerbaijan food manufacturing giant Azersun in 2001. 

– ‘Tooth and nail’ –

A stable financial backing gave them a chance to sign players from overseas with the foreign contingent assisting them to four consecutive national titles since 2014.

South African striker Dino Ndlovu, Spanish duo Michel and Dani Quintana and Brazilian midfielder Richard Almeida have all helped Qarabag secure a seat at European football’s top table.

Qarabag, known as the ‘Caucasian Barcelona’, battled into the group stage with wins over Georgian side Samtredia, Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol and Danish title-holders Copenhagen.

Now the side which has some precious experience in the Europa League over the past three seasons face much sterner tests with Chelsea joined in Group C by AS Roma and Atletico Madrid.

“Our group rivals are very strong and experienced teams but it doesn’t mean that we will surrender before the battle starts. We’re ready to fight tooth and nail in every group match,” promised Gurbanov. 

Qarabag meet Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in London as joint table-toppers on the home front with Zira after winning their opening three matches of the new campaign.

“We start the campaign in London,” said Gurbanov.

“The match at Stamford Bridge appears to be very tough and important. But we hope to perform there with dignity.”

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