Football in Azerbaijan can be traced back to 1911, having been introduced by British workers during the industrial boom of the late 19th century. The game caught on in the capital Baku and the provincial cities of Tovuz and Shamkir, inspiring such passions that neutral referees were drafted in from neighbouring Georgia to supervise big matches.
By the 1920s there was a regional championship in Baku, before the 1930s saw Azerbaijani clubs represent the country in the Soviet leagues. A breakthrough came after World War Two when Neftçi PFK, Soviet Cup debutants in 1944, competed in the Soviet Top League. Neftçi finished third in the top flight in 1966, and a player from the Baku club, Anatoliy Banishevskiy, starred for the USSR at the FIFA World Cup in England.
The collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s sparked a sporting decline. However, the republic's independence, completed in October 1991, prompted the formation of a national football association and, from there, a redevelopment of the game. The Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (Azärbaycan Futbol Federasiyalari Assosiasiyasi or AFFA) was founded in 1992, and joined UEFA two years later. UEFA membership had a beneficial effect. UEFA's desire to help new associations emerging from the break-up of the USSR led to the creation of the East European Assistance Bureau (EEAB), which gave significant support.
Thanks to this financial, technical and logistical aid, Azerbaijan has been integrated into the football family. Baku's Shafa stadium was built in 2001 at the vanguard of concerted efforts to vastly improve the infrastructure. Bakı FK and Olimpik-Şüvälan PFK are two clubs with new grounds; top-class stadiums and sports complexes are under construction in cities such as Lankaran, Imishli, Evlakh and Zagatala. UEFA has also funded the artificial turf pitches installed by the AFFA for grassroots purposes.
The culmination of these activities came in October 2007 when the UEFA President, Michel Platini, inaugurated the AFFA's new House of Football headquarters in Baku, together with FIFA President Joseph S Blatter. UEFA and FIFA's assistance programmes had made possible the building of a five-storey HQ. The republic's President Ilham Aliyev honoured Mr Platini with the Order of Glory, Azerbaijan's highest award. The association has since opened the AFFA Footballing Academy, and is working on a new national-team training base in Mardakan.
Complementing this commitment to establishing a sounder infrastructure is the AFFA's dedication to educating young players, which is enshrined in an official programme covering the years 2005 to 2015. There are national Under-17 and U15 leagues involving clubs from the top flight – the Premyer Liqasi – and lower down. Eighty teams form an U13 championship, with an U11 equivalent planned, and schools football is greatly encouraged. Other grassroots initiatives are football/futsal for the disabled and street football.
Specialist education is available for referees and coaches in line with UEFA's strict criteria, and Azerbaijani match officials have received international assignments. Futsal is an area of excellence for the AFFA. Azerbaijan, and Baku in particular, was considered a heartland of the smaller-sized game from the 1960s, and Araz Naxçivan uphold that tradition by competing among Europe's elite in the UEFA Futsal Cup.
Azerbaijan's national football team have also established themselves over successive UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, starting with EURO 96. Since kicking off with a 3-0 defeat in Romania in September 1994, the team have improved sufficiently to record several notable results. Victories over Switzerland (1998 World Cup), Slovakia (2002 World Cup), Serbia and Montenegro (UEFA EURO 2004) and Finland (UEFA EURO 2008) preceded a creditable 1-1 draw with Russia in 2010 World Cup qualifying and a famous 1-0 win at home to Turkey on the road to UEFA EURO 2012, both of those results being obtained under the stewardship of Berti Vogts, the celebrated former Germany defender and head coach.
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