Qarabag versus Sheriff: The Europa League’s broken home derby

Words by Colin Millar Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 13, 2018

“When we heard about Allahverdi Bagirov’s death, we couldn’t hold our tears back,” recalled former Qarabag FK player and youth coach Elshad Khudadatov. “During one of the games, we held a silent tribute to him and a missile hit the stadium’s pitch. None of the footballers moved. Each one stood motionless in his place.”

Bagirov was the manager of Qarabag but more significantly, he was a war hero in his native Azerbaijan. His death in June 1992 was within a year of his nation gaining independence following the dissolution of the USSR. At just 46 years of age, Bagirov was one of the estimated 35,000 fatalities of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, fought over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region.

At the time of Bagirov’s death, 1,500km to the north-west, a separate conflict raged in Moldova – another of the nations to gain independence in the post-USSR aftermath. Moldovans had historically held greater political and social ties with neighbouring Romania while its 19th century absorption into the Russian Empire brought long-standing problems.

Within months of independence, those tensions erupted between Moldova and the breakaway Transnistrian territory, escalating into a military conflict. Transnistria – on the eastern wedge of Moldova, bordering Ukraine – is ethnically different than the rest of Moldova, with two-thirds of is population of either Russian or Ukrainian descent.

Ultimately a ceasefire was reached in July 1992 with Transnistria gaining de facto autonomy, despite still being recognised as part of Moldova by the United Nations. The two-and-a-half-decade long ceasefire with Moldova has held, with Transnistria electing its own government and being the only state to continue to use the Soviet-style ‘hammer and sickle’ on its flag. The city of Tiraspol is the unofficial capital of the area and is home to Sheriff Tiraspol – the football team which has won 16 of the 18 national league titles this century.

The club are essentially viewed as the national side of autonomous Transnistria. They are named Sheriff as a nod to their sponsor who themselves were formed in the early 1990s by former members of the special services. They had gained a monopoly over profitable private business in the state and are said to have held great political influence within it.

Whilst a peaceful resolution to territorial conflict was found relatively swiftly in Moldova, the same could not be said of the six-year Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the time of manager Allahverdi Bagirov’s death, Qarabag played in front of regular full houses at the Imarat Stadium even though it was under persistent attack.

Due to an ongoing military offensive, Qarabag’s home city of Agdam had to be evacuated and the club had to relocate to the capital Baku to continue fulfilling fixture obligations. They subsequently gained the nickname of Qaçqın Klub – meaning ‘Refugees’ Club’ in Azeri. Their home city was ultimately destroyed by Armenian forces, to ensure its native population never returned. The ghost town has since been dubbed the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus” with its former reputation as a vibrant city of 60,000 inhabitants long forgotten.

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Within ten days of the city falling to Armenian forces in 1993, the club landed the Azerbaijani league title. In many ways the achievement was a remarkable show of resilience in the face of adversity but the severity of the brutal destruction across south-western Azerbaijan made it seem utterly insignificant.

Another two decades would pass before the club would reach the heights of its success in the early 1990s when they finally regained the Azeri league championship in 2014. The club have strong financial backing from conglomerate Intersun, backed by the Azerbaijani state. The fortunes of the club have been politicised with suggestions that it is within the nation’s interest for Qarabag to continue their success. It allows Azerbaijan to align itself with the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area, historically Armenian. USSR legislation passed by Joseph Stalin placed the territory under Azeri jurisdiction and the fallout from its conflict has been felt heavily in both fledgling nations. To this day, neither Baku nor the Armenian capital Yerevan has shied away from its long-standing position on the war-torn area.

Qarabag’s funding has certainly brought them success and allowed football to be elevated into the spotlight. They have won five consecutive league titles and in 2017, reached the Champions League group stages for the first time in their history. Taking on Roma, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid – whom they secured two draws against – in landmark matches for Azerbaijani football. Their current squad contains Brazilians, Spaniards, Croatians and French players, while Iceland international goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson was a summer arrival.

Their progress to last season’s group stages saw the Azerbaijani champions edge out Sheriff in the qualification rounds. Twelve months on, they have once again been paired but this time in the Europa League group stages with both having fallen in Europe’s premier club competition. The Moldovan champions sense revenge and lead 1-0 following the first leg in Tiraspol.

In the summer of 1992, the idea of Qarabag’s survival as a club was in great jeopardy while the thought of a self-governing Transnistria being home to Moldovan’s dominant football outfit was fanciful. Decades may have passed but the open cultural wounds left from the dissolution of the USSR remain. As ever, football acts as an attentive lens on identity and association – concepts which are rarely as clear as they first appear.

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