This Thursday evening at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur will open up its 2015-2016 Europa League campaign against Azerbaijani club Qarabağ FK. When the group was announced, I started to do some reading on the club and found an incredibly deep, interesting, and even tragic history of this club in eastern Azerbaijan. While there are no blogs or sites regarding the club, I did manage to find a supporter who goes by the username novruzj over on Reddit's /r/soccer forum who was willing to give us some insight on the club's history and what we can expect to see on Thursday. I hope you all enjoy this interview, because I certainly did.
CFC: Qarabağ FK is first up for Spurs in Europa League, who are the current holders of the Azerbaijan Premier League title and the Azerbaijani Cup. What can you tell us about the club's recent success besides pulling the double last season?
Novruzj: It depends on what you consider 'recent'. Qarabağ's success story started from 2009 since which it had pretty stable results and participated in Europa League every year except the 12-13 season. Qarabağ's main success in the last two years was becoming champions twice in a row and, of course, getting into the group stage of EL twice in a row. Last year it would even be able to proceed to at least the Quarterfinals of EL instead of Dnipro (Kiev), if the referee didn't make a mistake. In the last match against Inter Milan, Qarabağ clearly scored, but the referee mistakenly thought it was offside.
CFC: Tragically, the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 90s seemed to have a devastating effect on the club. Can you elaborate on what happened and how Qarabağ FK ended up moving from Aghdam to Baku?
N: Imarat Stadium in Agdam was built in 1952 and served as a home stadium for Qarabağ FK. The stadium was destroyed by bombardments from Armenian military forces and the head coach of the team died in the war. Since then, Qarabağ has been going through a lot of financial problems until, in 2001, one of the largest companies in Azerbaijan became its sponsor. Nevertheless, the club started to shine after arrival of the current coach Gurban Gurbanov in 2008.
CFC: The Azerbaijan Premier League has gone from 26 teams in 1992 to just ten clubs in the current season. While some of it has to do with finances, are there outside factors that have reduced the number of clubs in your country's top flight?
N: The war affected not only Qarabağ FK and the region, but obviously the whole country. It took several years for the country to stabilize from both internal and external conflicts, so football wasn't a main concern. Unfortunately, due to this, approximately 20 clubs have gone bankrupt since the creation of the Azerbaijani Premier League. In addition to financial reasons, there was very low interest towards football until the recent years. But, the situation is slowly changing, mainly due to more stable results from the clubs in UEFA cups. Nevertheless there is still very low interest towards matches within Azerbaijani Premier League.
CFC: According to Google, Qarabağ FK played last season in Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, which holds a little over 31,000 supporters. However, there's a new ground that's been built, correct? The new stadium, according to Wikipedia, only holds 5,800 supporters. Why such a harsh drop in capacity for a club that has played in Champions League qualifiers and is currently in European competition?
N: Right. The new stadium is expected to be completed by the end of this year. You can already find some of the photos and videos of it on the official facebook page of the club. The new stadium, called Qarabağ Stadium, will be much smaller than Tofiq Bahramov Stadium having a capacity of only 5,800. As I have said, the demand for APL games is very low, which is why that capacity will be more than enough. The UEFA games will still be held in Tofiq Bahramov (due to UEFA regulations of minimum capacity size - as far as I know). The demand for football is rising, and if the country as well as the club will not have harsh financial and economic problems, very soon the club will have to increase the stadium capacity.
CFC: Who are the players that Spurs supporters should watch for and will there be any familiar names out there?
N: Almost on the last day, Qarabağ announced purchase of several players at least one of whom seem to be very promising. The transfer from RSC Anderlecht (which is ironic as we are in the same group of death) - Samuel Armenteros. Armenteros already scored in his first appearance, and fans hope that he will continue doing so even in the Europa League. But the main stars of the club are Reynaldo and Richard Almeida. Almeida is the main playmaker of the team, while Reynaldo is one of the most technically skilled players, being able to go through the opponents' defense very easily. Another transfer from this season, Rydell Poepon, maybe known to those following Eredevise as he played there in Spartha Rotterdam, De Graafschap and ADO Den Haag.
CFC: What is the expectation for Qarabağ FK this season in the top flight and in Europa?
N: Qarabağ is expected to win the APL championship. As of now their two main rivals are Qabala (who is also performing in Europa League) and Inter Baku. Neftci FK, which has been the main rival of Qarabağ, is currently not in the best state, but nevertheless is still in third place in the local league. Being realists, fans understand that Qarabağ is in one of the hardest, if not the hardest group in the EL. But last year, Qarabağ FK wasn't able to pass the group stage only due to the mistake of the referee, so we still believe and hope that Qarabağ will continue showing the game that it demonstrated against Young Boys. In addition, teams from the English Premier League and French League 1 usually do not take Europa League seriously, and may underestimate Qarabağ FK.
CFC: I have to admit, the crest for Qarabağ FK is pretty slick from top to bottom. What's the history behind the crest?
N: The horses stem from the club's nickname The Horsemen, which is also the reference to horse breed "Qarabağ Horses". The breed is noted for its good temper and speed, and was very popular in Azerbaijan and nearby regions. Unfortunately now there are less than 1000 horses of this breed left and it is threatened with extinction.
CFC: Do you expect many supporters to make the long flight from Baku to London?
N: Not really. First of all there is the financial problem. Although the distance is pretty far, the main reason is the cost of the ticket that is too high for an average fan. In addition to that there is a visa problem. Although embassies try to accommodate sports fans, getting visa is an additional cost: both in terms of time (embassies usually work during regular business hours when most people work) and in terms of visa fees.
CFC: Can we get a little prediction out of you for Thursday night's match at White Hart Lane?
N: I think the best result that Qarabağ can achieve is draw. Spurs didn't start the EPL very well, but they managed to beat Sunderland last Sunday. Nevertheless they have another match ahead with Crystal Palace which have started the season much better than Spurs and even managed to beat Chelsea. On the other hand Qarabağ is leading Azerbaijani league and won't lose that lead in the next stage even if it loses. Therefore Qarabağ will try its best in the game with the Spurs - not revealing everything so early in the group stage, but also not taking the upcoming match as lightly as Spurs may. Considering all that, my prediction is 1 - 1 (maybe too optimistic, but I'll take the risk)
We would like to thank novruzj for doing this Q&A session with Cartilage Free Captain despite the huge disparity in time zones (nine hours to be exact!) and wish him and his club the best of luck in their campaign! (Except when playing Spurs, of course.)