Having a Ball

Let’s get one thing straight right away: I am so not a football (or soccer as our US friends call it) fan! 22 men running around in flabby shorts, chasing a ball, supporters hating their opponents, weeping if they loose, players acting out a minor melodrama if they get tripped up, a bunch of men protecting their nethers when someone attempts to shoot a goal, I just don’t get it! Why? But my husband has imbibed his love for the game and especially Chelsea Football Club with his mother’s milk. The whole family, male and female, three generations, are mad about football. Despite living in Baku, my husband still retains his Chelsea season ticket and tries to arrange his flights back to the UK to coincide with the big matches. Not only that but to my acute embarrassment, the man actually –and here I cringe- wears an electric blue synthetic team top, strip, I believe it is called, to attend the games. Loyalty is a wonderful thing but really, does he have to go that far? Here in Baku he is in his element. On the Russian cable channels they show most matches live and, obviously, you don’t need to understand the commentary to see what’s going on. The time difference demands that he sits in front of the TV late at night, cheering his team on. And lordy lord, it seems as though the football broadcasts are never ending. Don’t these people ever have a rest or do something else? This World Cup and that Champions League, ‘friendlies’ and heaven knows what else; I have taken to listening to audio books with my earphones while the interminable racket goes on but I am fast running out of listening material and it’s costing me a fortune!

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Tofiq Bahramov Stadium Baku

Marriage, my granny always told me, means compromise, so when my husband asked me to accompany him to last week’s Qarabag vs Salzburg FC Champions League game at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium in Genclik, I reminded myself of my wifely duties and reluctantly trotted along. Not my idea of a phenomenal date night but it’s all about give and take, isn’t it, or so they say. It was a lovely warm evening as we approached the stadium. I’m told that it seats 31000 but as we were standing at the booths buying our tickets, the noise that emanated from inside made it sound more like 100000. There was shouting and cheering and clapping and stomping and plenty of loud trumpeting. Smoke and smells were billowing from the fast food stands, people were rushing about, zigzagging in front of us and there was a general atmosphere of high excitement. On our way to the stands we passed the club house with its bronze statue of the man himself, Tofiq Bahramov, known worldwide as ‘that Soviet linesman’, the man who awarded the highly disputed 1966 English goal which resulted in England beating West Germany in the World Cup. He was, of course, Azerbaijani but the less said about him to a German, the better.

We’d bought the tickets more or less blindly not understanding a word the seller said but as luck would have it, they were fantastic seats, right by the press enclosure and TV cameras. The stadium was full of testosterone fuelled men, father’s and sons, groups of friends, brothers, and there was some heavy bromance going on. Strange really, in a country in which homosexuality is so reviled. At most, 1% of the spectators were women. Our section was clearly the expensive seating area which was evident by the flicked up polo shirt collars, Gucci loafers and designer sun glasses.

Qarabag vs FC Salzburg
Qarabag vs FC Salzburg

The teams came on to an enthusiastic welcome for the Qarabag team and loud booing and whistling for the Austrians. Within seconds, the Azeris scored their first goal and the crowd went wild. I can’t really tell you if it was an exciting game or not; the Qarabag team seemed to do a lot of fast running, the Austrians seemed more sedate. Back and forth the ball went to collective cheering and jumping up and down whenever it was close to the Austrian goal and much groaning and accusatory arm waving when it reached the other end. In my heart of hearts I supported the Europeans not only because I am European and a German speaker but also because I perceived them to be the underdogs and felt sorry for them, having to play in the unfamiliar heat and with virtually no fans to cheer them on. I was tempted to show my support at the appropriate times, especially when in the second half the Austrians equalized, but there, in among all the locals, I simply did not have the gumption. I think that’s called self-preservation!

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I concentrated on watching the crowd and was amused to observe whole family groups which were instantly recognizable as such by their profiles. You’d see men of all ages, sitting side by side, all with the same nose and the same cheekbones. I contemplated the extreme bad luck of the Austrian manager. Not only was his team struggling but the man is called Adolf Huetter…..I mean, with a surname like that what on earth possessed his parents to call him Adolf? Forget the surname, who in their right mind would call their son Adolf anyway? Can you imagine booking a table in that name? You’re guaranteed to have your food spat into. At least he didn’t have a moustache or a severe side parting.

We are family
We are family

75 minutes into the match, we were silently praying that Salzburg would get just one more goal. We had hope that perhaps the energetic Azeris might be running out of steam, giving the more measured opponents a good chance of scoring. Not so! Qarabag clinched the game with their second goal just before the end. The crowd went beserk with ecstasy! They were hollering and dancing, back slapping and high fiving, the joy was tangible and, in fact, a complete delight to witness. The young man in front of us turned and asked us where we were from. When we told him ‘England’, he said “I bet you were supporting Austria and they played so well but I am happy my team won” and he shook our hands and gave us the most charming smile.

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I knew that a few sections over from us were the Austrian supporters group, all 10 of them plus one German girl, a good friend of mine. We’d been texting each other increasingly sad faced emoticons during the match. She told me that they were heavily guarded by one to one police officers who then bodyguarded the entire group out of the stadium. My husband and I, on the other hand, without any protection, were right in the throng of the victorious opponents, slowly edging our way to the exit. Turncoat that I am, I started gabbling loudly in English, to make sure that I was not mistaken for an alpine blonde. I needn’t have worried. There was absolutely no sense of aggression whatsoever, not even one disdainful look or gloating gesture, just unadulterated contagious all encompassing happiness.

Outside the stadium we waited a good 30 minutes to find a taxi to take us back home, 30 minutes I would not have missed. The spectacle of almost 31000 jubilant fans was something else! Hanging out of car windows and sun roofs, careering around on bicycles, they elatedly waved their flags, tooted their vuvuzuelas, hooted their horns, called congratulations to all and sundry. It was mayhem but it was also one big happy party out there on that hot summer’s night.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still no footie enthusiast but what this wonderful evening’s entertainment did for me is this: it brought me closer to my host country and made me appreciate the tremendous joie de vivre, passion and politeness of the Azerbaijanis. It opened my eyes and my heart to the people around me. Whether you’re a fan of the ‘beautiful game’ or not, what I can say is that attending a match here in Baku is a fun and uplifting experience and I fully recommend it. But please, hold back on the synthetic team tops!

Post Scriptum: Apparently, I have forgotten an essential bit of information. On Wednedsday, 6th August, Qarabag, UEFA rated 214, will be playing FC Salzburg, UEFA rated 54, in Salzburg. If they win that game, they will be two matches away from the Champions League proper and a tie with one of the major clubs. I wish them luck!