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Football Development in Azerbaijan. Interview with Elchin Mammadov - AFFA's Head of Club Licensing.

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Roger Hampel

Elchin Mammadov, Head of Club Licensing in the AFFA (Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan)

Azerbaijan has relatively recently begun to make its mark on the football world map. Its contributions to global football are becoming increasingly prominent. Not only has the nation garnered attention through sponsoring renowned teams such as Atlético Madrid, but it has also played host to major international fixtures. The capital city, Baku, successfully hosted the Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea and further established itself as a key host city for UEFA Euro 2020. These events have accelerated the growth and interest in football within the country, drawing the world's gaze to its potential and passion for the sport.

In this conversation, Roger Hampel, the Founder of Football Business Journal will be in dialogue with Elchin Mammadov, Head of Club Licensing in the AFFA (Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan). As a pivotal figure in the Azerbaijani football scene, Elchin offers a unique perspective. Throughout the interview, we will trace how these international events have shaped the nation, delve into the future plans in football, and explore how Azerbaijan intends to sustain its growing influence in the sport.

Impact of UEFA Euro 2020 on Football Development in Azerbaijan

Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): My first question revolves around the UEFA Euro 2020 and the experience at the Baku Olympic Stadium. Could you tell us about the impact of UEFA Euro 2020 on Azerbaijan's interest and development of football?

Elchin Mammadov (Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan) : Absolutely, it had a significant impact, particularly following the Europa League final. There was a surge of interest and excitement surrounding the several matches held in Baku. This excitement was amplified given that the Turkish national team played two matches here, gaining support from local fans and Turks living in Azerbaijan. Additionally, activities for foreigners and tourists from different countries were organized in the city center. Such large tournaments undeniably stimulate community interest in football.

Roger Hampel: That's fascinating. My next question aligns with that. Could you elaborate on the impact of Turkey playing in Baku? Many consider Turkey a friendly and brotherly nation to Azerbaijan. It seems Turkey felt quite at home here.

Elchin Mammadov: Absolutely, the stadium was fully behind them. Despite the disappointing results in terms of sporting performance, they undoubtedly felt at home, and rightfully so, given the close ties between our countries. If we compare the attendance between matches with Turkey and without, there's a clear difference. However, local fans were understandably upset with the Turkish national team's results.

FOT: AzerNews. Turkey vs. Switzerland at the Baku Olympic Stadium during UEFA Euro 2020.

Roger Hampel: That's understandable. Could you share more about your experience during UEFA Euro 2020 as Venue Match Manager at the Baku Olympic Stadium?

Elchin Mammadov: It was a fantastic experience. I spent over a month orchestrating four matches. As a venue match manager, my responsibilities included liaising with teams, match officials, groundsmen team, overseeing goal line technology, VAR and coordinating medical matters onsite. The aim was to deliver the highest standard sporting facilities and services to the teams playing at the stadium. It was a great experience working with such professional teams and witnessing their celebrations and disappointments.

Baku Olympic Stadium's Prominence in European Football

Roger Hampel: The same stadium hosted the colossal London final, Arsenal versus Chelsea, in Baku two years prior. Could you talk about this? This was the first UEFA final in Azerbaijan. How did this affect interest in the country?

Elchin Mammadov: Indeed, many local fans follow English club football, arguably one of the most popular leagues globally. Having these two teams in Baku was special for local fans and a great opportunity for English supporters to discover Azerbaijan as a touristic destination. Based on feedback, many people were excited and planned to return for holidays with their families. Colleagues who worked on this project reported that it was delivered successfully and satisfaction was high. It also provided a good preparation for the Euro itself because a club final is a singular match with a couple of training sessions beforehand, whereas the Euro comprised four matches with numerous training sessions.

Roger Hampel: Were there any notable matches at the Baku Olympic Stadium before that which served as a sort of ‘test run’ for the Europa League final?

Elchin Mammadov: I don’t recall any specific matches organized as warm-ups. However, Qarabag FK played its group stage matches of the Europa League at the stadium during the same season, which could be seen as preparation.

FOT: CaspianNews. Chelsea with the Europa League 2019 Trophy in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Restructuring and Expansion of Azerbaijan's Football Leagues

Roger Hampel: That makes sense. As for the Azerbaijan Football Federation, what plans are in place to further develop football in the country?

Elchin Mammadov: Currently, our focus is on youth and club football. We have a specific government program in place that grants all professional clubs a certain amount of funding based on their league position and compliance with certain criteria. This strategy aims to increase club attendance and stability and make the sport more attractive to sponsors. For instance, starting from this season, we now have three levels of professional football. We have ten clubs in the top league, ten in the first league, and twelve in the second league. This new third tier is a fresh addition and I believe it will have a substantial impact.

Roger Hampel: Could you explain what the structure was like before the current changes?

Elchin Mammadov: It used to be two tiers, where last season the top league had ten clubs, and two seasons ago, there were even eight clubs in the top league. The first league consisted of B teams from the top league and some smaller professional clubs. Now, everything is separated. We have now separated B teams into their own competition. They play matches the day before or after the main team, which gives practice to young players and provides a chance for injured players from the main team to recover and get some practice before they return to the main team. They no longer participate in competitions where you can relegate or promote. After the top league, there’s the first league consisting of ten separate teams and then 12 teams below. That’s the new structure. This change will start from this season, with the Premier League starting this week, and the lower leagues commencing in September.

Roger Hampel: Are there any cases in Azerbaijan of new clubs being developed like completely new projects?

Elchin Mammadov: In the lower leagues, the majority of clubs are either brand new or are historical clubs that had paused operations for a while but are now back. These clubs come from various regions across the country, bringing diversity to our leagues. It’s hard to predict if any of these clubs could compete with the existing top ones, but it’s a matter of time.

Roger Hampel: What about the national team’s plan? Is the focus on youth development to make the national team stronger?

Elchin Mammadov: Absolutely. The current focus is on developing youth national teams, and subsequently promoting them to the top league.

Roger Hampel: Have there been any notable successes in the youth sector, both in terms of results and infrastructure?

Elchin Mammadov: Yes, if you compare the situation now to a few years back, we’ve significantly developed our infrastructure, especially in Baku for national teams. We’ve also increased the number of competitions for youth players. Furthermore, club licensing has helped a lot. Clubs wishing to participate in UEFA competitions and the domestic top league have to meet certain standards. For instance, each club has to have teams in several youth categories. We are also beginning to license the women’s league for both UEFA Champions League competitions and domestic ones. This initiative should further contribute to the development of youth and particularly, girls’ football.

FOT: TFF. Turkey Women's Team vs. Azerbaijan Women's Team

Roger Hampel: Could you shed some light on how the cooperation with UEFA regarding club licensing matters, and how it contributes to the growth of football in Azerbaijan?

Elchin Mammadov: Absolutely, Roger. The UEFA’s club licensing initiative, introduced about two decades ago, has been pivotal in enhancing football in Azerbaijan. Initially aimed at improving elements such as stadium infrastructure, it has expanded to cover broader aspects. For example, it necessitates teams to provide adequate facilities when hosting matches. This encourages equity, ensuring that all participating teams, regardless of their size or resources, are guaranteed a basic level of amenities.

The licensing process is multi-faceted. It mandates clubs to have in place youth development programs, monitored by the federation. This scrutiny ensures that all clubs have the requisite equipment, infrastructure, and training personnel. It also enforces certain administrative requirements, insisting on qualified personnel for roles within the club, like security officers, media officers, doctors, etc. These stipulations incentivize clubs to invest in their staff’s education.

From a legal perspective, clubs must be properly registered at the national level and disclose information regarding ownership. The federation checks for any overdue payables to players, coaches, tax authorities, or other clubs. As of last season, a new criteria has been introduced – football and social responsibility, requiring clubs to develop policies for child protection, environmental conservation, accessibility, etc.

After fulfilling these requirements, the clubs submit the documentation for assessment, and if they meet the minimum criteria, they are granted the license to participate in European competitions. This is the standard procedure across all 55 UEFA member associations.

Infrastructure and Global Partnerships: Building the Future

Roger Hampel: That’s very informative, Elchin. You also mentioned infrastructure development. Eight years ago, the first European Games took place in Azerbaijan, leading to considerable infrastructural developments. However, are there any current construction projects for stadiums or other football-related facilities?

Elchin Mammadov: At present, only one stadium is under construction in the region. The focus now is more on preserving and enhancing existing facilities to align with modern standards. Many of our stadiums were built several years ago when the current requirements were not in place. Today, TV and hospitality facilities demand certain infrastructure, requiring investment. Several clubs are either working on light reconstruction or development of their facilities or have just completed them.

Roger Hampel: How many clubs use the Olympic Stadium?

Elchin Mammadov: This season, Qarabag FK is using the Olympic Stadium for their matches in the UEFA Competitions. Neftchi has its own Category four stadium from UEFA, and Sabah and Gabala are using their own stadiums. Therefore, each club has its own stadium for European competitions, and most top league clubs play in separate stadiums.

Roger Hampel: Interesting! Moving onto the topic of sponsorships and investments in promoting Azerbaijan through them, such as the partnerships with Atlético de Madrid. Could you discuss how these partnership helped improve Azerbaijan's image and promote it in Europe?

Elchin Mammadov: Regarding the "Land of Fire" initiative with Atlético Madrid, it has been an excellent experience. Atlético reached the Champions League final twice during this campaign, which generated significant interest. Post these finals, "Land of Fire" was one of the most searched terms, boosting curiosity about Azerbaijan.

FOT: MyNet. Atletico Madrid's jersey with the "Azerbaijan. Land Of Fire" as the Main Sponsor.

Roger Hampel: As a final question, could you discuss the future of football in Azerbaijan? Do you have any data that shows an increase in interest from, say, ten years ago until now?

Elchin Mammadov: There has been a marked increase in interest, Roger. Though I don't have exact figures to share right now, I can say that last season saw record attendance, and we expect even more this season. Many new clubs have emerged from various regions, which will likely boost local attendance. So, I am confident that interest in football will continue to grow in Azerbaijan.

Roger Hampel: That's encouraging to hear. It seems these big events, coupled with initiatives from the federation and club success, are inspiring young players to take up football. Would you agree?

Elchin Mammadov: I certainly would, Roger. Major events undoubtedly help boost interest, and the development of professional clubs in each region is motivating young players. Seeing a path to becoming a professional player in their own city or region is a powerful incentive. Furthermore, the success of clubs like Qarabag FK, which frequently participate in the group stage, has changed the paradigm, and now every club strives to qualify. This all contributes to drawing more young people towards football.

Roger Hampel: That's insightful, Elchin. I appreciate your time and sharing your insights.


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