Playing With Fire

By Rob O'Connor  |  20 Jan 2015

What do an axe murderer, Atletico Madrid and an Azeri librarian have in common…?

Answer: they all owe a recent change in fortunes to the state-building programme of Ilham Aliyev – football’s newest and most ruthless plutocrat.

“How can anyone trust Azerbaijan after this?” Thinking aloud on a cold day in September 2012, history professor Levon Marashlian joined 400 other protestors outside the Azerbaijani consulate in Los Angeles, gathered to voice their disgust at the release and state pardon of convicted Azeri murderer Ramil Safarov.

In 2006, the military officer was convicted of butchering Armenian soldier Gurgen Margaryan at a NATO-sponsored language camp in the Hungarian capital Budapest. Using Margaryan’s nationality and heritage as a pretext to justify his actions, Safarov attacked him with an axe. Margaryan was asleep at the time.

Six years later, following extensive negotiations between Budapest and Baku, Safarov was extradited to his home country on the condition that he serve out the rest of his sentence in the Azerbaijani capital. Instead, however, he was released from custody shortly after arriving home, and offered a position in the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani army, with eight years’ back-pay to cushion his landing.

The governmental response in Baku was unanimous; here was the Azeris’ prodigal son, a hero, returning to his rightful home after years of unjustified punishment for his act of martyrdom against the hated Armenians.

It is no surprise, then, that Marashlian, one of a vast diaspora of Armenian ex-pats and their kin living in the US, felt moved to protest the ruling. That he should have trust issues should come as no surprise, either; the stark facts of the Safarov case induce an acrid nausea that bleeds across cultural lines.

It can be a stubborn thing to shift. In October 2013, just a month after Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, used a state address to reaffirm his country’s commitment to Safarov’s release, Atletico Madrid president Miguel Angel Gil Marin issued a public letter to Aliyev congratulating him on winning a third consecutive term in office and promising to “continue the cooperation in promoting the image of [Azerbaijan].”

Later that month, Atletico thrashed Real Betis 5-0 at the Vicente Calderón in front of 42,000 spectators and millions of television viewers around the world; in doing so, they also moved to the top of the La Liga table. Through it all, they played with the words ‘Azerbaijan – Land Of Fire’ boldly emblazoned across the front of their shirts, fulfilling the club’s side of a 16 million euro sponsorship deal that is set to run to the end of this season.

It’s a relationship that serves both parties well. Atletico is an influential European brand with a global fanbase, and the Azeri courtship of the West makes high-profile advertising space in the worldwide soccer market a must-have. Likewise, the club pocket a tidy sum whilst aligning themselves neatly with a country growing all the time in its significance to such disparate interests as European construction, commerce and energy.

But that alignment comes with a Faustian twist. Marin’s endorsement of a regime that sought to vindicate the actions of a convicted murdered seemingly represents the thin end of a wedge – a wedge that points towards a sport in the process of self-desecration as it tears after a quick buck.

Azerbaijan is a polarised country with a complicated history, and its government has moved keenly in recent years to make sport a fulcrum on which its global reputation can turn. Followers of judo and wrestling will be familiar with Baku; major tournaments were recently awarded to the capital by the IJF and FILA respectively. Several sports held qualifying competitions for the 2012 Olympic Games in Azerbaijan. But it is through football that Aliyev has been most eager to fly his flag over Europe. The 2012 Under-17 Women’s World Cup was hosted in Baku, where work is due to finish early next year on a 65,000 seater Olympic Stadium. It is in this stadium that the little-heralded men’s national team will play out their qualifying campaign for Euro 2016.

Aliyev’s young republic receives predictably little mainstream press outside of the Caucasus. The only time supporters of England, Spain and the rest are exposed to images from the Azeri state is when their teams make sporadic easterly treks for gruelling qualification matches.

From 2015, however, those images will come in glorious Technicolor, beamed back from the state-of-the-art football palace designed to UEFA Category Four standard by Korea-based Heerim Architects to the tune of $640m. Azerbaijan will appear to be economically thriving, culturally alive – the mythical precipitates of liberal democracy.

Ultimately, though, all this scene shifting will obscure the bigger picture; the Olympic Stadium will be a mock-up of an Azerbaijan that does not exist beyond its shimmering glass walls. There will be no place in the official story, for example, for the hundreds of families who were forcibly removed from their homes, with little to no warning, to make way for the giant edifice. Some were even detained by police whilst their homes were demolished and possessions destroyed. Compensation – when it arrived, if it arrived – was based on shoddy calculations that failed to accurately appraise the size and value of the property seized. Scores were forced into cramped, inhospitable conditions far from the homes and communities they had helped to build.

Arzu Adigezalova is a single mother caring for two young children in Baku. Her apartment was razed by construction workers charged with undertaking the building work that would transform the capital:

“I woke up because the building was shaking, and I heard something I thought was thunder. I took the kids and went outside. [I went up to] the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said, ‘OK’, but then in the next moment said to the bulldozer driver, ‘Knock it down!’”

Her story is far from unique. Librarian Nuria Khalikova was one of eight residents in her apartment block to stubbornly resist eviction notices: “About 10 to 12 police broke down my door, and workmen entered the apartment and started moving out my furniture and belongings. The police removed me from my apartment and took me to the local police station. When they finally let us go, we went back to our building, but they had already started to demolish it and we couldn’t go in. We saw huge machines hauling away our belongings. I went to the warehouse to collect my belongings; half of the things were broken and many things were missing.”

Khalikova and Adigezalova represent just a fraction of the human cost incurred as Azerbaijan’s sporting infrastructures bulldoze their way towards modernisation, leaving in their wake a silent population that is further than ever from the westernised largesse enjoyed by the governmental elite.

Displacement is a thorn in the side of Azeri state-building. The most recent published estimate puts the number of Internally Displaced Persons in the country at 603,000. (The trigram IDP, you’ll notice, makes autocratic work of reducing a generation of civic tragedy to just another nugget of office-friendly bureaucracy.) The conflict with neighbouring Armenia, over the Nagorno-Karabakh Mountains, still burns with the same nationalistic vigour as when a ceasefire was declared in 1994 and accounts for most of that number; however, it is a figure that also goes some way to revealing the depth of Aliyev’s cynicism towards his own people and their suffering.

The state regularly posts ambitious projections that detail the number of war refugees it plans to re-home through new construction projects over the coming years. A closer inspection of these plans, however, suggests a botched job for the sake of image-building. Because while Azerbaijan’s committee for IDPs is heavily committed to a project that could improve living conditions for over 22,000 families displaced by the war – indeed, 10,000 refugees have moved into permanent accommodation since 2012 – reports from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre confirm that a majority have complained of dangerous structural faults, limited access to healthcare and a dearth of public services. Weak economic ties between the new settlements and central Baku make meaningful growth unlikely; many of the new-build neighbourhoods are already rudderless and facing uncertain futures.

It’s not hard to see why. The Azerbaijani government has acted to satisfy a fierce public nationalism that demands aid for the victims of perceived Armenian aggression; now that the call is being answered, the human consequences for families thrust into crumbling shanty towns have lost political currency. The same goes for the thousands wrenched from their homes in the name of government-sponsored urban renewal and a smart new stadium for the nation’s footballers. Image-building at home carries a different tone to that expected by, or shown to, Aliyev’s foreign suitors.

So what of Atletico, and of trust? The Land Of Fire that the club promotes on its trips around Spain, Europe and, digitally speaking, the world seems on inspection to be little more than a sham – a fit-up designed to dupe a soccer-hungry consumer base into accepting an exciting young republic as an emerging force in football’s new cultural economy when, in fact, it lacks a basic humanitarian regard for its most vulnerable communities. The scale on which Aliyev and his network of reputation launderers have launched their assault on western European consciousness suggests a ruthless blueprint, robust enough to take the sting out of scrutiny from abroad and capable of softening the voices calling for change.

2014 was a year of difficult questions for football’s plutocrats. Manchester City and Malaga were among several clubs challenged to justify their close ties to suspect regimes in the Gulf. And, as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar draws ever nearer, those power-brokers who align the game’s interests with the global outposts of neo-feudalism will find themselves under closer scrutiny than ever.

“You can’t sit at the table and negotiate with a country whose president rewards and honours terrorists,” Marashlian told me outside the Azerbaijani embassy, back in 2012, before turning to lend his voice to the dissenting crowd. If the price is right you can.

Rob O'Connor is a football writer for World Soccer and TwentyFour7, among others.
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