Azerbaijani league football will begin again this weekend after a 400-day break.
Some 400 days after the last season shuddered to a premature halt, Azerbaijani league football will begin again tomorrow.
The last competitive league game in the country took place on 10 April 2002 when FC Shafa played at home against FC Kapaz. After that, relations between the clubs and the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) reached crisis point, with the clubs withdrawing from the league and refusing to play under the association's banner.
Now, thanks to mediation between the clubs and AFFA president Fuad Musayev by the AFFA executive committee, the Azeri league will kick off again on Saturday with the same two teams who competed in the last competitive game, Shafa and Kapaz, coming face to face once again. The resumption of the league may be a first step towards the lifting of a FIFA ban on AFFA issued in April this year.
There has been some controversy over the make-up of the new 14-team Azeri league, with eyebrows being raised over AFFA's decision to include FC Adliyye, even though the Baku club - which is associated with the ministry of justice - finished in fifth place in the last second division table. AFFA decided that the presence of so many Azeri youth internationals in the club's squad demanded that they join the country's élite.
FC Khazar Sumgayit and FC Lokomotiv Imishli will also be newcomers to the top flight, but the title campaign – which will run from spring to autumn - looks set to be fought out between the more established sides in Azerbaijan. FC Shamkir, FC Neftchi, FC Karabakh-Azersun and Shafa remain the favourites.
Shafa, the only club in the world to be founded by their football association, severed all ties with AFFA under the terms of an agreement with UEFA and FIFA and have also paid a fee to compete in the league like all of the other teams. Azeri internationals Ruslan Musayev and Romal Huseynov and several members of the Azerbaijan Under-21 squad look likely to provide the excitement.
Neftchi, traditionally the most popular club in the country, also have their share of U21 stars as they prepare to meet FC Shamkir in their opening game. Shamkir could also challenge for the title but, like fellow heavyweights Karabakh-Azersun, the accent in their squad is very much on experience rather than raw talent.
The process of restarting the league has been a tortuous one. Originally, the clubs planned to begin a new season on 4 March, but the clubs and the AFFA could not reach agreement.
A meeting of AFFA's executive committee on 7 April, which Musayev declined to attend, saw an agreement to start a new season on 20 April, but despite three further meetings, it never happened. Indeed, Musayev only agreed to meet the executive committee on 13 May – the day before a joint FIFA and UEFA delegation travelled to Azerbaijan in an attempt to resolve the conflict.
Musayev, the AFFA executive committee and several foreign observers finally met up with FIFA and UEFA representatives yesterday, when it was agreed to start the season on 17 May. The start of the new season will also prompt new presidential elections at the AFFA and many consider it unlikely that Musayev will be re-elected.