Sadness filled Elvira Askerzade's life at the age of eleven, when her mother passed away. The 18-year-old from Azerbaijan found comfort in football –becoming a promising goalkeeper and captain of her country's national Under-19 team.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
Elvira Askerzade had to face serious adversity as a young girl. Her mother died when she was eleven – an experience that might have damaged a lesser spirit. But the 18-year-old from Azerbaijan has coped admirably...and has found her way forward through football.
She fell in love with the game, which not only gave her solace in difficult times, but also smiled on her by granting her excellent skills as a goalkeeper – skills which have given her a current place in the national Under-19 team – along with the captain’s armband – and a long-term residence at the Azerbaijan Football Academy, as well as dreams of a successful senior career.
Elvira grew up in the city of Lankaran, on the Caspian Sea coast near the southern border with Iran. The young girl first encountered football virtually on her doorstep.
“When I was a child, there was a stadium near my house, and I saw how girls like me were playing football there. My brother always watched football, and during my childhood I used to ask him: ‘Why are you watching this?’ Afterwards, even though I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, I used to watch as well to see what it was all about.”
“Then, I started to become interested, and I said to myself: ‘Maybe I should try this? I can do this as well’.”
Elvira’s mother paved the way for her daughter’s entry into the world of football during her childhood. “My Mum signed me up to a football course when I was eight,” she says. “Although I didn’t attend the sessions during school time, I played during the holidays, and she wanted me to be involved in something.”
But her mother was to pass away ¬– a terrible shock to bear at such a young age. “I was depressed after her death,” Elvira recalls. “In fact, I didn’t want to do anything.” Her grandmother Zibeyda took on the role of parent to her in Lankaran.
Football opened its arms to Elvira and ushered her forward. “My coaches called me up and told me: ‘You can do this’, ‘come and play’…so I went and played. I enjoyed playing football, I felt fulfilled.”
Alongside the care and attention given to her by her grandmother, football would turn out to be a great source of comfort in Elvira’s young life. “My childhood was difficult,” she says, “as I didn’t grow up like ordinary kids.”
Elvira frankly admits that there was some family reticence to her wanting to play football. “My Grandma also didn’t want me to be involved with [the game]. She wanted me to study like everybody else. But I chose my dream. I knew that I could do it.”
Goalkeeping certainly wasn’t on Elvira’s radar in those early footballing days. “I preferred playing [up front],” she explains. “My coach always put me in goal because of my height. However, I realised that I had something.”
Elvira’s flourishing promise as a goalkeeper was soon noticed by Azerbaijan’s national youth coaches and, at the age of 14, she was invited to go from Lankaran to live at the national football academy run in Baku by the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA).
“When I came to the academy, it was very strange for me,” she remembers, thinking of her regular bouts of homesickness. “It was the first time I’d been so far from home. At first, I was really nervous – but as time went on, I got used to the academy.” Footballing and personal progress has been constant ever since. She is developing into a fine goalkeeper, playing at the younger age levels for her country, and has become an independent and confident young person.
Life at the academy has been beneficial for Elvira on a variety of levels. “I grew up here as a professional footballer,” she says. “I had to adhere to a regime, which was basically sleep, eat and train.” On the club scene, Elvira plays for Baku-based Yüksək Liqa (Major League) club FC Tahsil. “I grew up like a professional athlete. I’ve moved up through the ranks, and play for a more senior team in terms of age.”
“I’ve made new friends here. Even though my family is far away, I know I have another family here. When I have any issues or problems, I’m able to share them with people and ask for help.” Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, is a vibrant, lively city that has a special appeal – “I’ve managed to live here with ease,” Elvira says. “I love Baku, because it made me who I am.”
Every trip home to see her grandmother is a time of joy. “We have fun together,” says Elvira. “When I’m here at the academy, I video-call my Grandma and talk to her. She’s the person I cherish most in my life.” Any reservations that Elvira’s grandmother felt at her playing football have also long since disappeared. “After she saw how I’d fallen in love with the game, she was happy for me to play. She stood by my side. I think my family are proud of me now, because they thought I wouldn’t be able to achieve this.”
The love of football glows brightly as Elvira makes her way along her chosen path. “I love football, it’s everything to me,” she reflects. She thinks deeply about the significance of the game she adores. “I think football symbolises friendship - because there are no boundaries or differences based on religion, race, gender. People of all ages and races, both boys and girls, everyone can play football.”
Elvira explains that once upon a time in Azerbaijan, there was a widely-held view that girls shouldn’t play football. “Today, it’s not like that,” she says. “Things are developing all the time and our nation, the Azerbaijani nation, can see that women can also play football.”
The role of goalkeeper is a specialist and sometimes lonely job. “I think being a goalkeeper is very tough,” Elvira admits. “It’s a huge responsibility. Your teammates have to trust you. Any other player can make a mistake, and another teammate can correct that mistake. But, if a goalkeeper makes a mistake, it tends to end up as a goal.” As captain, Elvira sees her role as watching and managing every player, as she can see the match unfolding in front of her.
Elvira’s most cherished dream is to play in the [UEFA] Women’s Champions League. “That’s my target, that’s what I’m aiming for. If I reach that aim, I’ll try to stay at that level, not stand still, but progress further. If I were to win the [Women’s] Champions League, I’ll bring my grandmother my medal and show it to her!”
The loss of her loving mother made Elvira mature quickly, and her Mum’s spirit still guides her. “The loss of my Mum made me focus more on life,” she says. “Because she wanted me to do well for myself. To achieve her dream, I try my best to be successful every single day. I believe my Mum is proud of me.”
“I always believe that people should work to achieve their dreams. I’m also working hard to reach my aim. But, there were people who said things like: ‘You can’t do this’, ‘this is for boys’, ‘women can’t do that’. But, thank goodness, I’ve demonstrated that it’s possible. If you want something, you can achieve it.”
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