Sunning himself beside the Caspian Sea, Dan Brennan explains the corruption and politics that briefly left Wales’ Euro 2004 opponents in international limbo
As Iraqis can testify, it is not generally good news when the ruler’s son is put in charge of a country’s football affairs. For Uday in Baghdad read Ilham in Baku. Aliyev Junior, son of the Azerbaijani president, might not be guilty of the extremes of Saddam’s boy, but is doing his best to make a bad situation worse.
When Azerbaijan was cast into the wilderness by FIFA in April, it was just the latest of many blows for the country’s football lovers. The last 18 months have seen the country’s FA (backed by FIFA and UEFA) pitched against the Olympic Committee (backed by the government) in a battle for control of football and its funds. The league has ground to a halt, clubs have been banned from European competition and the country’s best players have left for Iran and Russia. If that wasn’t enough, Wales thrashed the national side 4-0.
Ilham has a reputation as a playboy, largely due to his fondness for a bet. He once lost $6.5 million (£4.1m) over a weekend, prompting his dad to close down the country’s casinos (Ilham has taken to sneaking off to neighbouring Georgia if he fancies a flutter). To keep him off the streets, Aliyev Senior decided it would be healthy if he took up sport; or rather, if he took over sport, and made him president of the Azerbaijani Olympic Committee. This gave him carte blanche to meddle with the country’s football association, AFFA.
In the past five years, Ilham has managed to appoint government officials and allies of his dad as president of the volleyball, handball, wrestling, hockey and weightlifting associations . The one remaining blot on the landscape is Fuad Musayev, president of the AFFA and former Communist Party boss of the capital, Baku.
But this isn’t a tale of good and evil, simply one of bad and badder. Azerbaijan regularly makes it into the top three in the league table of the world’s most corrupt states – sleaze is so institutionalised, some officials wear their capacity for garnering backhanders as a badge of honour. Musayev is accused by many within the game of dipping his hands in the coffers and creaming off large wads from UEFA handouts.
The stand-off has reached crisis point in recent months. In February, the tax police, thought to be acting at Ilham’s behest, sealed the offices of the FA, alleging it owed half a million dollars in tax. Musayev denied the charges and said it was politically motivated provocation. They also closed down the national stadium and searched the home of the FA’s general director, Oktai Zeinalov, confiscating various papers and a laptop. In March the courts ordered the seizure of five cars belonging to the AFFA, claiming this was in lieu of unpaid debts to a Turkish construction company. Again the AFFA denied all knowledge, but as a result, the national team had to hire a private bus to meet them at the airport after the game in Serbia. Worse followed in April, when Zeinalov was arrested on charges of tax fraud and placed in solitary confinement.
Despite the squeeze being placed on him, Musayev has remained defiant. “I will never step down from my post just because the authorities want me to. I am the legally elected president of the association and I am not afraid of blackmail or threats, wherever they come from. I would rather die than resign.” Though, when the police confiscated his visa for the team’s trip to the UK in March, he almost cracked: “Tell Ilham Aliyev, he can send a team to Wales,” he blurted.
The schism has been reflected in a split in support at club level; not a ball was kicked in the league for over a year from last spring. Several clubs have refused to play while Musayev remains president. According to Kazbek Tuayev, coach of Neftchi Baku, it is the AFFA president who “has destroyed Azerbaijani football”. Nonetheless, Neftchi and ten other top -flight clubs eventually agreed to return to the fold and, after several postponements, the new season started on May 17.
Ilham even used the national team’s abysmal record to vilify Musayev. He called for Azerbaijan to withdraw from international football rather than face the disgrace of further defeat and briefly had his wish, when FIFA and UEFA suspended them. A reprieve has now been issued and throughout the proceedings FIFA and UEFA have once more shown themselves to be toothless tigers. The real losers, of course, have been the country’s footballers and their fans.
And it gets worse. In April, President Aliyev, who has just turned 80, collapsed for the umpteenth time and could well pop his clogs at any moment. Many might consider this cause for celebration, except that Ilham – who is also vice president of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, head of the state oil company and Azerbaijan’s representative in the Council of Europe – is being touted as his most likely successor. In the remote event of fair elections being staged, he is unlikely to be getting the football vote.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month