By Erkin Ibragimov
Ramiz Mirzoyev's election as the new president of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) marked a major growth in investment in Azerbaijan football.
Major Azeri businessmen such as Mubariz Mansimov, Hafiz Mamedov and Ikram Kerimli helped financially stablise Azeri clubs, and big names have followed big money into the game with legendary Brazil captain Carlos Alberto Torres becoming the first foreigner ever to take charge of the Azeri national team.
The captain of Brazil's famous 1970 FIFA World Cup side and his assistant Marcello Campello have prompted a revival in Azerbaijan's fortunes, as the national team avoided defeat in five international games in 2004, winning against Kazakhstan and Uzebekistan and drawing against Latvia, Jordan and Wales.
The Brazilian's contract with AFFA expires in February and many in Azerbaijan would like to see it extended. "I believe Torres must continue his work," said 28-year-old midfield player Kamal Guliyev. 'No matter who it is, it would be wrong to switch a coach in the middle of a qualifying campaign."
However, former PFC Neftchi goalkeeper Sergey Kramarenko, father of current Azerbaijan goalkeeper Dmitry Kramarenko, disagrees. "His predecessors, Igor Ponomarev and Asker Abdullayev, collected five and four points respectively in qualifying," he said. "Torres has two so far and I do not believe our team can win against [Azerbaijan's next FIFA World Cup Group 6 opponents] Poland or England."
Nonetheless, foreign specialists are helping to improve the standard of Azeri football. Currently, there are three in the Azerbaijani First Division - Ukrainian Anatoliy Konkov at FC Inter Baku and Turkish coaches Rasim Kara and Naji Shensoy at FK Khazar Lenkoran and PFK Turan Tovuz respectively
Konkov came to Inter in the summer, bringing a number of experienced Belarussian and Ukrainian players with him, including brothers Uladzimir and Mikhail Makouski, who used to play for FC Dynamo Kyiv, and Serhiy Onopko, the younger brother of Russian international Viktor Onopko.
Inter are currently fifth in the 18-team division, but while his foreign legion have thrived, Konkov has not neglected Azeri youngsters. Orkhan Rajabov, Elnur Mammadov and Elshan Mammadov have developed significantly, while Elmar Bakhsiev and Zaur Hashimov recently received their first national team call-ups.
"This is our goal," said Konkov. "The quality foreign-based players have to help the development of talented youngsters. There is no point in working any other way. After a coach leaves a country he should be remembered not for what he achieved, but also for the good players he helped to develop."
Sixth-placed Khazar started the season with an Azeri coach, Nazim Suleymanov, but president Mubariz Mansimov brought in the man who was Fatih Terim's assistant during his time as Turkey coach, Kara, to replace him, along with former Turkey striker Oktay Derelioglu.
Kara, whose side are just six points behind joint league leaders FK Karabakh, FK Baku and FK Karvan Evlakh, is enjoying his new role. "I am going to get Azeri citizenship and stay here," he said. "I like the country and its people very much. I believe that Khazar will soon be a club of European standard."
Shensoy is having a less happy time at seventh-placed Turan, having been handed a touchline ban for comments about referees, but the young players in his side are continuing to develop well. Foreign coaches may not have been universally welcomed in the national team, but at club level, Azerbaijan will be reaping the rewards for their work in the future.
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