THE BARMY ARMY GET BAKU TO BASICS – AZERBAIJAN v ENGLAND
FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First newspaper, October 17, 2004
A wet and windswept night in Baku watching England grind out a result proved only one small part of the story for the 2,000 away fans, many of whom will take with them from Azerbaijan some of the most outlandish traveller’s tales of recent times. You can put your house on the fact that the majority of the England faithful will still remember the ups and downs of this trip long after all memories of Michael Owen’s solitary goal have been extinguished.
Azerbaijan is the most far-flung tie in European football and the complications and costs of getting there encouraged even the most hardy of solo travellers to sign up for one of several travel packages on the market. Opting for a one-night stopover trip organized by TMG, one of two FA endorsed ‘official’ travel providers (the other is Travelcare), like many fans I was slightly worried in the week ahead of the game when rumours of the quality of our hotel began to circulate on the internet. But the soundbite from the Lonely Planet guide – “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a stay would be a good idea” – did not do justice to the near-to-derelict state of much of the accommodation on offer in the Hotel Azerbaijan, a massive Soviet-built 600-bed complex overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Within seconds of checking-in, fans had started leaving the hotel, each with their own horror tale to tell. While the TMG reps worked to resolve the situation by moving as many people as possible into the few ‘renovated’ floors of the building, and to other hotels where possible, we heard tales of fans cramming as many beds as possible into one of the few refurbished rooms to accommodate whoever wanted in; of fans opting to sleep on the floor in other hotels rather than face the squalor of the Hotel Azerbaijan; and of yet more still who left to find accommodation elsewhere, whatever the cost.
We heard stories of damp walls, peeling wallpaper, light fittings and electric sockets hanging loose, flooded bathrooms, rusty baths, broken toilets, holes in the ceiling, masonry on the beds, condoms in the sink, doors that had been broken into, not to mention the general sheen of dirt covering every inch of the place. Even cataloguing it all here doesn’t do justice to the sheer horror of the hotel.
But times are changing slowly in Azerbaijan. The crumbling architecture of the city’s Soviet past is obvious everywhere you look, from the rusting CCCP drain covers to once mighty monuments falling into disrepair (the magnificent Soviet structure that once housed the city’s tribute to Lenin is now home to Baku’s carpet museum). But it’s all strikingly at odds with the money coming into the city courtesy of its booming oil industry. You’ll see battered Ladas vying for roadspace with shiny new ‘Beamers’, while each of Baku’s tourist attractions can be found just a stone’s throw from much of the city centre poverty housing.
Despite all the warnings, and the obvious signs of poverty, the people of Baku proved friendly and welcoming, whether they just stopped you in the street to say hello or chatted about football at the specially arranged Fans Forum. The forum gave the English a chance to taste some of the local delicacies, and Azeri fans could test their knowledge of Premiership football in a special quiz, but the real attraction was an appearance by the son of Tofik Bakhramov, the linesman who famously judged England’s third goal to have crossed the line in the 1966 World Cup Final.
Presented with a special T-Shirt proclaiming, in Azeri, “Cox Sag Ulun” – thank you – a bemused Bahram Bakhramov found himself posing for pictures with every England supporter in the building, while the golden whistle, presented to his father by the Queen for ‘Services to England’, had pride of place in the display of memorabilia. “I am very pleased that English fans and Azeri fans came together here in a friendly atmosphere,” he told me after all the photo opportunities had come to an end. “It was a great pleasure for me to have such event organized in the honour of my father.”
Bahram has no direct memories of his father’s role on that momentous day in July 1966 – “I was 10, I was very young” – but he is pleased that history has seen the legendary ‘Russian linesman’ finally get his nationality back. “Now that Azerbaijan is independent it’s very right for him to be remembered as a member of the Azeri nation,” he told me. “People like Tofiq Bahramov are only born once in a hundred years.”
Indeed, so revered is the linesman that the stadium in Baku is actually named after him. “We didn’t name it after any footballer or coach,” explained Famil, a 23-year-old Azerbaijan fan. “He was a very famous and special person in our country – and he fought in the Second World War against Germany too. I remember at Euro 96 Romania scored a goal against Spain that didn’t count – and in a Russian magazine there was an article saying ‘Where are you Tofik Bakhramov, if you were there you would have seen that!’ There were so many famous footballers and referees in Russia, but they remembered Bakhramov 30 years later. He is still very famous in Russia and all over the world.”
Arriving at the Tofik Bakhramov Stadium for the game, fans found that the fantastic weather of the previous day had made way for the kind of conditions that have given Baku its name, ‘the city of wind’. Rumours were already circulating about the viability of the tie. “The BBC say there will be a pitch inspection in 15 minutes but it’s 90 per cent off,” said one fan with a hotline home. With the chilling winds whipping rain through the stadium, it seemed highly plausible, but at least it gave people something different to moan about for a couple of hours.
Somewhere in the middle of this cold night there was a game of football. In the most atrocious conditions England had come away with a result – and on the coach back to the airport, as the talk turned to the brothels of Baku, it appeared that a couple of the fans had too, although even when it came to this topic, partisan rivalries took the blame for the rise in prices. “Apparently when the Welsh came over,” said one fan, “they told the girls that the English would be prepared to pay more.”
As we headed home on our six-hour flight through the night, few people seemed to be talking about the football. “You go to these games just in case it turns out to be the big one,” explained Leicester fan Andrew. “This one obviously didn’t – but I still don’t think I’ll forget about the trip in a hurry.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007