Maccabi Tel Aviv kicks off group stage vs Qarabag

Storied Azerbaijani champion visits Bloomfield for Europa League duel with yellow-and-blue.

MACCABI TEL AVIV continues its continental campaign tonight when it hosts Qarabag FK from Azerbaijan in the Europa League Group I opener at Bloomfield Stadium. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MACCABI TEL AVIV continues its continental campaign tonight when it hosts Qarabag FK from Azerbaijan in the Europa League Group I opener at Bloomfield Stadium.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Qarabag FK in UEFA Europa League Matchday One action on Thursday night at Bloomfield Stadium.
This season will mark the first time since the 2017/18 campaign that the yellow-and-blue will be playing in the group stages of a continental competition, in Group I, which will also include La Liga side Villarreal and Sivasspor from Turkey.
Qarabag has won the Azerbaijan league championship seven straight seasons and has played the last six campaigns in European group stages, including an appearance in the Champions League in 2017/18.
Head Coach Gurban Gurbanov, who has been in charge of the club since 2008 has a number of weapons at his disposal with Spaniard Jaime Moreno, Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir and Croatian Filip Ozobic to go along with veteran captain Maksim Medvedev, who has made over 300 appearances for the club since 2006.
Although Qarabag is now a mainstay in European soccer, that has not always been the case and in fact the now Baku-based club has a history riddled in conflict, war and exile – making its story even that much more impressive.
To shed some light on the club and its enthralling background, The Jerusalem Post spoke with Dutch-based journalist Arthur Huizinga, who is an expert on Qarabag FK and the author of two books that explore the topic in-depth, “Offside: Football in Exile” together with Dirk-Jan Visser and “Never a Homegame. A football war in the Caucasus.”
“The football club Qarabag Agdam is used as a prism to talk about the impact of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh area which still exists today,” said Huizinga, whose connection to the outfit began back in 2006.
“We took a research trip to the area of Nagorno-Karabakh and learned that there was now a ghost-town called Agdam in the plains of Karabakh. We wanted to visit Agdam, but that was not possible due to the unrecognized republic of
Nagorno-Karabakh which could only be accessed from Armenia. There were trenches with soldiers on both sides of the area and a military zone.
“Although we couldn’t go to Agdam on that trip, its name stayed in my head and I realized that there was a team based in Baku called Qarabag Agdam. I understood that this team was from Agdam and there was a story that surrounded the team.”
Huizinga decided to return to Azerbaijan during the 2007/08 season with the objective of going to see Qarabag play.
“I went to Baku and got into contact with the club as I was there to see the last game of the campaign. If I could get to the game, then the trip would be successful.”
Concerned that the game would be sold out and he would not even be able to find a jersey to take back to Holland, Huizinga desperately searched for someone who could help him.
“The club’s press officer laughed really loudly when he heard about my predicament. In fact, I didn’t even need a ticket as there were only 30 fans at the games and they didn’t even bother selling souvenirs.”
At this point Huizinga was hooked and had found a new love as he began his project in 2009 when Qarabag made its first serious run in European soccer as it faced Rosenborg in Europa League qualification.
Ironically, prior to the tie with the Norwegian club, the first time the Azerbaijani squad had any success in continental competition was when it defeated Maccabi Haifa back in the first round of the 1999 edition of the UEFA Intertoto Cup.
After drawing with Rosenborg 0-0 in the first leg in Trondheim, Qarabag won the second leg back in Azerbaijan 1-0 on a spectacular goal by Rashad Sadygov, who just announced his retirement this past summer, to send the club onwards before it was eventually knocked out in the playoff round to Eredivisie squad Twente.
However, the stage had been set for the club’s future European success. “The day that Qarabag defeated Rosenborg was July 23, which is an ominous day in the club’s history. It was the day when the Battle of Agdam took place in 1993 and when Armenia occupied the city. The date now was also marked by its biggest victory in European football. People may say that football and politics aren’t related, but they are. This showed that they truly are.”
Going back to 1993, Huizinga began describing how the battle was the beginning of the end of the club as it had been known up until that time.
“The 1993 season was perhaps the best year in the club’s history as the war raged and the team played with local players. During that season, games were played even when shelling was going on in the city. One time a mortar hit the stadium and they took a break for about an hour and then resumed play.”
Qarabag qualified for both the local league playoffs and the Cup final, which were both to be held in Baku. The club wrapped up the Azerbaijan Cup on May 28, but then had to play the league final on August 1 as its hometown had now fallen and the players had lost all of their homes and belongings. Qarabag ended up winning 1-0 and became Double Winners but did not celebrate the victory.
Following the 1993 season, the club struggled to survive just like the other 700,000 refugees and moved from training ground to training ground and from stadium to stadium. The players from Agdam remained loyal to the club throughout and played without being paid. They even went to the market to raise money to buy food for lunch. In 2001, Azersun Holding, a local food manufacturing company, began sponsoring the club.
Qarabag now plays its home games in Baku and actually held some of its matches at the Guzanli Olympic Stadium, which is located in the most populous municipality in the Agdam Rayon of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and close to its original home base in Agdam, which is now inaccessible.
The club may not have any traveling supporters, but throughout Europe there are diaspora communities that will make sure to catch Qarabag play. Huizinga has been fortunate to be able to follow Qarabag around to its various European stops as it has regularly featured in the Europa League group stages since 2014/15 and also the lone Champions League appearance.
“I was at the games in that Champions League campaign in 2017/18 and I have been fortunate to be able to witness the historic happenings of the club. I want to be there each time something happens.”
With the renewed battle raging on in the club’s original hometown, the players’ attention may not only be on their match against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“There’s no shred of a doubt that Qarabag is preparing for a soccer game, but it is also looking at what is going on in the war,” said Huizinga.