Azerbaijan's work in women's and girls' football has been rewarded with prestigious recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC has handed the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) the Women and Sport Achievement Diploma, in appreciation of its excellent contribution to promoting the development and participation of women and girls in sport, particularly football.
"This is a very important award for us," AFFA women's football coordinator Zaur Hajiı-Maharramov told UEFA.com. "Not all associations receive such an award, and it means we are on the right track and that international organisations evaluate our work highly. To be honest, we didn't expect this diploma. We now have to work twice as hard to justify this recognition."
A key moment in the continuing growth of the female game in Azerbaijan came in 2010, when the country was awarded the hosting of the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup – a proud honour. "We did have a national team earlier, but it was mainly based around naturalised players," said Hajiı-Maharramov.
"We started work on creating a 'local' team to take part in the World Cup. We appointed Germany's Silvia Raith [part of the squad that won the 1989 and 1991 UEFA European Women's Championship and formerly in charge of FC Bayern München] as our coach, and began looking for players everywhere in the country. We had only 20 registered players at the time – now that figure is over 4,000."
To prepare for their World Cup adventure, the Azerbaijan women's Under-16 side undertook a week-long training camp in Nyon, Switzerland, as guests of UEFA. They played two friendlies and met UEFA specialists, greatly appreciating the experience. At the tournament itself, the girls were proud to share the same stage as many illustrious countries.
Azerbaijan does not yet have a domestic women's senior league, but there is a thriving set-up in the junior ranks – more than 50 teams involved in U13, U16 and U19 competitions, and three national sides playing at U19, U17 and U15 levels. The WU15 team were established to take part in the qualifying event for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games girls' football tournament, held in Nyon in October; they narrowly failed to gain an Olympic berth, losing by a single goal to Slovakia in the final.
One main objective is to put together a women's side at a higher age level. "We plan to create a women's U21 team because we don't want to lose girls from the current U19 squad," said Hajiı-Maharramov. "These girls may become a good basis for this team."
The captain of the promising WU19 squad, which performed creditably in this autumn's UEFA European Women's U19 Championship qualifying round, is defender Amina Heydarova. "I have played football from an early age," she told UEFA.com. "Of course, I wasn't a professional, I was just playing against boys and it was more a hobby than something serious. My mother realised that everyone has their mission. My father supported me all the time and wanted to see me as a football player." Her parents were especially impressed by the way the AFFA went about creating quality training facilities for young players.
Heydarova plays for FC Fidan and also studies at the Azerbaijan State Academy of Physical Training and Sport. "I try to combine studies with training," she said. "I want to become a good specialist in sports. There is a need to break the mould which says football is only for men. As for our team, we are like sisters. We support each other in every question – which is very important for development and progress." This "togetherness", allied to the AFFA's unstinting development work, reflects just how determined the association is to bring women and girls into the game, in line with UEFA's development programme strategy – and it is credit to the AFFA that the IOC has recognised their work.
AFFA general secretary Elkhan Mammadov is unequivocal on the association's policy: "The association will continue to contribute to women's football. It is a pleasure for the AFFA Executive Committee to confirm further budgets to nurture women's football. We feel our obligation to provide the same opportunity and conditions for girls as we do for boys."
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