So UEFA has announced its structure for Euro 2020, supposedly the most democratic competition to be launched by the grandees of Nyon.
Michel Platini wanted to spread the love and bring the Euros to the masses. Group games are going to be hosted across the continent and so, too, will the round of 16 and quarter-finals. And then, it’s over to Wembley with the semi-finals and final in the same location. Isn’t that what we had in 1976?
While it’s logical to have games in Glasgow, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Budapest, Rome, Bucharest, Bilbao and so on, it’s strange that France and Portugal, even Greece, have been excluded. Admittedly, France will have its own competition in 2016, but then so, too, will Russia when it hosts the World Cup in 2018. St.Petersburg has its place in Euro 2020.
And oh yes, Baku has also been appointed as a venue. Baku, from that footballing hotbed of Azerbaijan. A place that is known as the “city of winds” and is more synonymous with the World Chess Championship. It has certainly produced more top-class chess players than it has footballers. They like board games in Azerbaijan – backgammon is also incredibly popular.
UEFA, and FIFA, likes to open it arms wide and embrace emerging football markets. It’s not so easy for UEFA, but giving Baku four games in Euro 2020 goes a long way towards opening the door very wide. At the same time, you can’t help feeling that the country’s oil-rich economy, and the promise of petro-dollars for the game’s development could be at the root of their appointment. It’s difficult not to be cynical these days.
Baku’s selection is recognition of a country that is clearly on the up. In 2012, its potential for rapid growth earned it the tag the “Tiger of the Caucusus”. Likewise, Globalisation and World Cities Research Network ranked Baku as a “gamma level” Global City – in other words, it is on par with Glasgow, Marseille, Leeds and Ankara. In 2011, it was listed as the 48th most expensive city in the world and its Nizami Street is one of the most expensive across the globe. It may be a footballing backwater, but this is no down-at-heel nation.
A new stadium is being built for the occasion, but the current venue for any major sporting event is the Tofiq Bahramov stadium, named after the famous “Russian linesman” from the 1966 World Cup. In 1966, anything east of Hamburg was referred to as Russian and Azerbaijan, a country most people had never heard of in those days, was part of the Soviet Union. This suggests that Bahramov is the most famous football personality the country has produced.
But what of local football? Top of the table at present in Azerbaijan is Inter Baki (Baku), who play in front of 300 people at their 8,000 capacity Inter Stadium. They’ve not won the title that often, just twice in fact. The leading club since 1992 has been Neftchi Baki, eight times champions in that period. They average around 2,000 for league games, which is higher than the 1,600 average for the Premier Division. Neftchi’s club crest features an oil platform, which tells you how ingrained the petrochemical industry is in the culture of Azerbaijan.
The national team is currently ranked 95th by FIFA, but is coached by none other than Berti Vogts. Azerbaijan’s most notable recent success was a shock win against Turkey in 2010.
All things considered, it looks inappropriate to award Azerbaijan with four games in Euro 2020. And it’s not just because of their status in the footballing hierarchy. Amnesty International and the European Parliament have both criticised Azerbaijan’s human rights record. Legislators called on the country to “undertake long-overdue human rights reforms without further delay and cease their harassment of civil society organisations, opposition politicians and independent journalists and lift the ban of public gatherings in Baku.” Amazingly, Monsieur Platini defended the UEFA decision. “Football is football, politics is politics,” he said. Do we hear the sound of heads being buried in the sands of the Caspian sea coastline?
Once again, football’s administrative bodies are found wanting when it comes to really important issues….