In most countries the most revered figure in football is a player. In some it will be a manager and in a handful it might even be a referee. But in only one country is it a linesman whose status as the most unlikely World Cup celebrity of all time depends on a single decision that he should never have been asked to make and which he possibly got wrong.
In extra time of the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium a Geoff Hurst shot hit the underside of the West German crossbar and bounced back into play. The decision on whether or not to award a goal properly lay with referee Gottfried Dienst, but he consulted with his linesman Tofiq Bahramov, who with a simple wave of his flag indicated that England were 3-2 up. The legend of the "Russian linesman" was born.
But Bahramov was neither Russian nor a linesman. Bahramov was actually from Azerbaijan and was at the World Cup as a referee who would double up as a linesman when required. Bahramov died in March 1993 but remains the only match official in the world to have a national stadium (the Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium) named after him.
Outside the stadium is a statue of Bahramov that was unveiled in 2004 on the eve of a World Cup qualifier against England, in the presence of a grateful Geoff Hurst. At the match hundreds of England fans wore shirts emblazoned "Bahramov '66 – Thank you very much" to honour England's most improbable football hero. Missing that day was England captain David Beckham, who was forced to apologise after admitting that a couple of days earlier he had deliberately fouled Ben Thatcher of Wales to get a yellow card so that he would be suspended for the trip to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan now play in a new $600 million Olympic Stadium despite never hosting the Olympics, having bid unsuccessfully for both the 2016 and 2020 Games. The stadium was a venue this summer when Azerbaijan became the first country to host the European Championships without ever having played in them. Four matches were played in front of small crowds not because of Covid-19 restrictions but because of underwhelming public demand to see Wales play Switzerland. Baku shared the hosting of Group A matches with Rome even though the cities are more than 3,000km apart.
This appears sensible scheduling compared with the 2019 Europa League final for which Chelsea and Arsenal (whose London grounds are just 14km apart) travelled 4,000km to Baku to play a match in front of so many empty seats that Uefa later investigated claims that the Azerbaijan FA opened up turnstiles mid-game to allow spectators in for free. This spectator apathy often extends to domestic soccer, as Inter Baku discovered when they attempted to boost their attendance by allowing fans in for free only to find that crowd levels remained unchanged, leading them to reintroduce admission charges.
Irish track record
Azerbaijan is one of only a handful of Uefa countries that the Republic of Ireland have never played. However, the two have met frequently in age-group soccer, most recently in qualifiers for the 2019 Under-21 European Championships. Ireland won 3-1 in Baku and then 1-0 in Tallaght Stadium thanks to a Shaun Donnellan goal six minutes into injury time, with Declan Rice donning the green jersey in both matches. At senior level Azerbaijan are regular visitors to the island, having ended up in the same qualifying group as Northern Ireland for three of the last four World Cups, including for 2018 when Northern Ireland won 4-0 in Belfast and 1-0 in Baku.
Azerbaijan's most successful club side are Qarabag, who last week outclassed Aberdeen 4-1 on aggregate to qualify for the group stages of European competition for the eighth season in a row. Nicknamed "the Barcelona of the Caucasus" when that was still considered the ultimate compliment, Qarabag's greatest achievement came in 2017 when they became Azerbaijan's first-ever representative in the group stage of the Champions League, finishing bottom of a group that included Roma, Chelsea and an Atlético Madrid side with whom they drew twice. In 2019 Qarabag beat Dundalk in a Champions League qualifier on a 4-1 aggregate. Gurban Gurbanov, who is Azerbaijan's all-time record scorer on 14 goals, has managed Qarabag since 2008.
However, Azerbaijan's current league champions are Neftçi, for whom former Ireland Under-21 international Joe Kendrick briefly played in 2009. In May Neftçi dramatically denied Qarabag an eighth consecutive championship by beating them 1-0 on the final day of the season.
In 2019 Tony Adams managed FC Gabala, where one of his first tasks was to stop a local farmer grazing his cattle on the pitch, terminating one of soccer's more unusual ground-sharing agreements. In 2020 Roy Keane was strongly linked with the position of Azerbaijan manager, but the job went to Italian Gianni De Biasi, who remains a national hero in Albania having qualified them for Euro 2016. Amongst his coaching staff is Benito Carbone, who starred in the Premier League for Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Bradford City.
No player from Azerbaijan has ever played in the Premier League. Renat Dadashov joined Wolves in 2019 but is now in his third loan spell away from Molineux with Tondela in Portugal. Serhat Tasdemir is on the books at English championship side Peterborough United but he is currently on loan to Barnet. The bulk of the Azerbaijan squad is drawn from their domestic league with the most notable exception being forward Mahir Emreli, who recently joined Legia Warsaw.
Their best players are captain Maksim Medvedev and striker Ramil Sheydayev, who was born in St Petersburg and won the Under-17 European Championships with Russia in 2013. An interesting new declaration for Azerbaijan is Filip Ozobic, who was an outstanding youth international with Croatia, for whom he won two full caps.
Azerbaijan is one of the few countries to have sponsored a foreign team, with the “Azerbaijan – Land of Fire” slogan appearing on Atlético Madrid jerseys. Sadly in recent times the national team has mainly been firing blanks, and last year it played out four consecutive goalless draws. But should they even come close to scoring on Saturday then Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be operational in Lansdowne Road for the first time following Uefa’s decision to introduce it for all remaining World Cup qualifiers.
As a soccer traditionalist I have to confess to being disappointed by this change. VAR is unquestionably more accurate than any linesman waving a flag, but I can’t see any national stadium being named after it any time soon.