Life in Azerbaijan is just beginning to return to normal after the celebrations following Wednesday's 1-0 UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying win against Finland.
Without a competitive victory in four years, Shakhin Diniyev's men had collected just one point from five Group A games and little was expected of them against unbeaten Finland. However, Emin Imamaliev's 82nd-minute goal secured an unlikely success and helped Azeris love their national team again. In the build-up to the match, demands for Diniyev's resignation had come left, right and centre. But whatever the criticism following their 5-0 defeat in Poland four days before, Imamaliev silenced the doubters with a fierce drive that stopped hearts in Helsinki - and traffic in Baku.
In the hours after the final whistle at the Republic Stadium, fans took to the streets en masse, waving national flags and causing endless traffic tailbacks across the capital. With shouts of "Azerbaijan! Azerbaijan!" echoing around, it was a time of supreme satisfaction for the 26-year-old Imamaliev. "I will remember this goal for the rest of my life," said the FC Inter Baku midfielder. "After the game against Poland, I heard a lot of things about myself. You can't believe how much I prayed for us to win." Team-mate Aleksandr Chertoganov added: "We proved that the Azerbaijan national team can play football."
That was an assessment Finland's English coach Roy Hodgson would concur with. Magnanimous in defeat, the former FC Internazionale Milano and Blackburn Rovers FC manager said: "I have to congratulate our opponents on a well-deserved win. Imamaliev scored a quite fantastic goal." The usually impatient local media were no less impressed. Football+ wrote: "This was a totally different team from the one that played Poland. The fans deserve special thanks too." It added that the game had "carried reminders of the great [PFC] Neftchi side of the 1960s [who played in the Soviet top tier]."
'Not a sensation'
Diniyev, meanwhile, resisted the temptation to crow in victory, saying: "I am not a hero - the players won it. Our motivation was totally different compared to the match in Poland. The changes in our lineup were not the reason for this win. Everyone showed 100 per cent commitment. This result is not a sensation, the defeat in Warsaw was the freak result."
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