Opening night may have been a disappointment for Qarachala, but coaches Namig Bashirov and Shahin Shakhuseyni are optimistic about the games to come and know the Azerbaijani side are already taking a lot from their UEFA Regions' Cup experience.
From a small city 120km from the capital Baku, Qarachala kicked off with a 2-0 defeat against Selección Catalana on Saturday, but they are not abandoning hope. "Everything's great," Bashirov told UEFA.com. "We have been made to feel very welcome, so all that is left for us is to play football. We lost the first outing, but there are two matches left. It'll be tough, but we're going to fight hard, because people in Azerbaijan are expecting good results from us."
The last team to qualify for the 2013 edition of Europe's top amateur tournament, Qarachala are fighting well above their weight according to Bashirov. "Everybody plays with heart," he said. "There are teams that represent regions here in Veneto, while we are a team from a just one small town. And we're just three years old. The first season was unsuccessful, then we reached the amateur club semi-final, and in the third year we won the domestic league and ended up here."
Like all the other coaches in the competition, the big challenge for Qarachala's bosses has been to stitch together a viable squad from players whose first priority is their working lives. "They are amateurs and they have families to support," said Bashirov. "Some of them work in agriculture, some in shops; we have waiters, manual labourers, security guards."
"We train as often as possible and treat the players as if they were professionals," explained assistant coach Shakhuseyni. "We have 20-25 matches a season and play friendlies against professional clubs to get more experience. One of the guys from our league, Malik Babayev, has ended up playing for Azerbaijan's Under-19 side and joining Neftçi PFK, who are about to play in UEFA Champions League qualifying, so the benefits of amateur football are obvious."
The step up from the local leagues to continental competition is a huge one, but Shakhuseyni says he and his players have been invigorated by what they have seen so far. "It's a European experience," he said. "Our guys have realised what it takes to play in Europe. Now they will strive to retain the national title in order to return to the Region's Cup. We coaches are learning as well. We knew nothing about amateur football in Europe until we came here."
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