European football has seen several fascinating Cinderella stories. In recent years alone, the English Premier League was shaken by Leicester City who triumphed in the second season after their promotion, followed by worthy performance in Champions League, RB Leipzig in their first season in Bundesliga almost challenged the dominance of Bayern Munich, and Atletico Madrid, despite their relatively modest transfer spendings, had moved past formidable powers of top European teams to become Champions League finalists twice in three years, in addition to defeating their super-team neighbors in the race to reign in LA Liga. This, however, is not just a story of another overperforming underdog playing with the “big boys”. This is the story of a dream that goes beyond football, the story of how the whole country supported one team, and how the group stage of Champions League is as big of an achievement as winning it. This is the story of Qarabag Football Club.
The European journey started in 2009 when Qarabag became the first Azerbaijani team to play in Europa League playoff round. However, they did not make it to the group stage until 2014. First, let’s clarify how the qualification system works according to UEFA rules. There is a number of spots designated for each country in the European competition, which directly depends on the ranking of the national league. The ranking is based on the point system and changes every year according to the performance of the teams. It is available on the official UEFA website. For instance, from English league, which is rated high, teams that finish in the first three places automatically advance to the group stage of Champions League. The fourth team plays in the playoff and gets to join the others if successful. Azerbaijani league, although advanced in past years, is not rated as high. Therefore, only the champions qualify for Champions League, however, first have to play in qualifying rounds (although they get a luxury of skipping the first round) and then play-offs. Hence, the group stage of Champions League is an extremely challenging process. Qarabag has achieved some success in Europa League, which includes the teams from lower positions in their home leagues (for Azerbaijan it is the second and third places) and those who failed in qualifying stages of Champions League. Since 2014 Qarabag has reached the group stage of Europa League all three seasons preceding this year’s success, and Azerbaijani fans got to see their team play European elite such as Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham. But Qarabag has never stopped at the reached and every new season started with the same goal – Champions League. With most of the spots “reserved” for top teams from high-ranked major European leagues, there is little space for underdogs, without world-class players and considerable financial power.
In May 2014 Qarabag became Azerbaijan’s champions after twenty-one years without the title. They advance to the second qualifying round and confidentially defeated Valletta from Malta without conceding a single goal. The next opponent was Red Bull Salzburg, a significantly higher class team. Qarabag defeated them at home, but unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in keeping the momentum and were eliminated due to the away loss. After ending their Champions League run, they had one more attempt to prove their worthiness to Europe and defeated Twente, despite being the obvious underdogs in the matchup. The win guaranteed Qarabag a spot in Europa League group stage where they showed a decent football. A year later Qarabag once again finished atop of Azerbaijani league and defeated their opponent in the second qualifying round of CL, however, fell short against Scotland’s Celtic, a team that consistently advances to the main European competition. Then they took advantage of their chance in Europa league, and made it to the group stage second year in the row, to play against Tottenham, Monaco, and Anderlecht, and even managed to collect four points in six games played against these much better teams. They followed the same scenario in the following season, only this time Qarabag managed to finish third in their group with Fiorentina, PAOK, and Slovan Liberec. One thing was clear – Azerbaijan’s presence in European football was established.
Ever since Qarabag became champions in 2014 they never lost the title and in May 2017 claimed their fourth gold in the row, ten points clear of the second place Qabala. Like in previous years, the second qualifying round did not present too much challenge for Azerbaijani side, but this time they were finally successful. After a goalless tie at home, the team managed to score twice in the away game against FC Sheriff and advanced to the playoff round of the Champions League for the first time. At this point, the dream was closer than ever before, but nothing was guaranteed yet. Whatever team people preferred in the domestic competition, everyone supported Qarabag, as the team prepared to face Danish København (Copenhagen), their last obstacle on the way to the group stage. The first game was at home and ended in favor of Qarabag after twenty-year-old Azerbaijani striker, Mahir Madatov, scored the only goal. However, the second leg presented an even bigger challenge, as Qarabag had to defend the favorable result. København scored a goal and that meant only one thing: the home goal was not good enough anymore. At moments like this, the past experiences come in handy, and Qarabag showed what they have learned, as well as their character and strength. South African player, Dino Ndlovu tied the game on sixty-third minute. And at this point, even the biggest skeptic realized that Qarabag had the real chance. Three minutes later, København took the lead, but Azerbaijani side could afford it, as they were still leading because of the away goal. With aggregated score 2-2, it is the away goal that made the dream come true. That night on August 23rd the history was made. From here on everyone knew: whatever happens, people will always remember 17/18 season as historical.
Everything you need to know about how the group stage draw works can be found on UEFA website. There are four teams in each group and the first two teams advance to the round of sixteen, while the third place gets to play in Europa League skipping the group stage. Qarabag fans’ hope was to get at least one mediocre-level team to compete with for the third place (even the truest fan has to be realistic). But football Gods decided that there had been enough miracle already, and Qarabag was placed in the group with English champions Chelsea and one of the best performing teams in past years, Atletico Madrid, in addition to young and powerful Roma. The group would be extremely difficult for any team, leave alone first time participants. But Qarabag made one thing clear: they were not going down without a fight (link).
There was nothing shocking about Chelsea winning the first game 6-0. What really surprised everyone was the way Qarabag played the match. Gurban Gurbanov’s team remained faithful to their style despite such a strong opponent. The team attacked and pushed the ball forward as much as they could, and if you consider this and the fact that Chelsea is one of the best counter-attacking teams in the world, six conceded goals do not seem as bad. Fans divided into those who supported attacking football against a better opponent, and those who believed that the only right thing to do was to set up a solid defense and hope for a tie. Here I will allow myself to express an opinion. When you have little to no chance of making it out of the group you should at least make your presence there memorable. There is no other way to earn respect than to show that you have no fear to play and attack the dominant team as if they were your equal. Even when you are down three goals you still want to attack and show the true spirit that helped you get there in the first place. When it comes to playing a defensive style of football every team seems to be more or less the same, and it is only the way you attack that makes you distinct. No one will really care if you lose by one or by six (that is in case of Qarabag), but everyone will admire the fact that you managed to score or at least tried to. And Qarabag’s glory resides in their fearless style.
Nevertheless, after the bad beat by Chelsea, not many fans believed in Qarabag’s chances against Roma with their attacking potential. After Edin Dzeko scored the second goal for Roma all hopes were lost and the fans prepared for another large margin defeat. But Azerbaijani side kept fighting back, taking every chance. You do not see many teams playing so eagerly on the (much stronger) opponent’s half of the field, especially when they are down two goals. The way the second goal was scored says it all. Dino Ndlovu intercepted the ball on the Roma’s half and passed it right to Pedro Henrique, who was already making his way into the box. The job was done. Qarabag scored their first ever Champions League goal. The entire stadium cheered as if it was a goal that won CL final. It might be subjective to suggest that Qarabag deserved a win against Roma after their brilliant performance in the second half of the game, but they deserved nothing else but admiration for the mindset after the game. They were not satisfied. Qarabag strives for more.
Gurban Gurbanov’s team is getting ready to play Atletico Madrid and whatever outcome awaits them, one thing everyone can be sure of is that they will give their best. Because they are champions, who have worked hard and deserved to be known and respected. Because they know that they belong among the best teams in the world. And isn’t that glorious?
by Murad Gafarov