When Flame and Fire Ignited Football

The ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians had always managed to live shoulder to shoulder for decades despite the long standing conflict that has its roots in the events that ensued World War 1.  Banquets and not battles followed the friendly matches between FK Karabkh Stepanakert and FK Qarabag Agdan until the late 1980’s when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate.  It was then Armenia not only invaded Nagorno-Karabkh, whose territorial ownership had always been heavily contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also the seven surrounding states.

In February 1988, war broke out and FK Karabkh Stepanakert, which had been playing since 1928, lay down the ball to take up the guns in defence of Armenia.  At the other end of the pitch, FK Qarabag Agdam, formed in 1951, continued playing through thick and thin, only stopping the matches when missiles from the nearby mountains came too close.  The following is just fragments of that bloody history where football gave rays of hope through the smoke and smoulder and ruin and rubble.

FK Qarabag Agdam on the road to displacement.

Despite filling their stadium in a devasted Agdam, FK Qarabag Agdam were forced to flee and become a displaced football team, playing their home matches in the Tofiq Bahramov stadium, Baku.  In February 1992, after the Khojaly massacre, one of the deadliest and most controversial of the war, a delegation of the team approached the city commander requesting to join the front and defend Agdam.  The commander turned their offer down arguing that footballers don’t fight – footballers play.  By doing so, the team would give the people something other than war to think about.

Agdam reduced to rubble and memories.

And that is what they did.  In the 1992 – 1993 season, the team demonstrated more than resilience and courage.  They won every league match except the first, helped along by the teenage Aslan Kerimove who agreed to start his career as a professional, while playing inside a warzone, in exchange for a blue Lada. The team succeeded in taking Azerbaijan’s league title, but sadly the victory was overshadowed by the devasting news that their hometown Aghdam had been reduced to rubble and memories.  Rather than celebrating their victory, the footballers returned to a smouldering Agdam in search of loved ones.

The Battle of Agdam  desperately dragged out for one full month taking a toll of almost 6,000 casualties.  The city fell on July 23rd, just five days after the displaced team had played and won the champions playoff and given hope and a sparkle of happiness to their fans.

The displaced team before the war.

Despite remaining in Baku, the team suffered important losses.  Their former coach and player, Allahverch Bagirov became a much respected commanding officer, saving the lives of many during the Khojaly Massacre.  According to one war journalist extraordinary events took place as prisoners were exchanged.  He relates how Bagirov embraced one of the Armenian prisoners and looking straight at his camera said, that man for many years had been a team-mate of his.   As fate would have it, Bagirov lost his life in an anti-tank mine on June 12th 1992.  The whole of the Azerbaijani football world was shrouded in grief.

While Agdam remains a graveyard of grief and gloom, its team has kept a flame ignited in the thousands of displaced people in the land of flame and fire.