Wales must not play in strife-torn Baku if Azerbaijan themselves cannot | Barney Ronay

On Tuesday night the Azerbaijan men’s national football team drew 0-0 with Luxembourg. Three days before that the Azerbaijan men’s national football team drew 0-0 with Montenegro. Three days before that the Azerbaijan men’s national football team drew 0-0 with Slovenia. Four weeks before that the Azerbaijan men’s national football team drew 0-0 with Cyprus.

0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0. In the course of this run Azerbaijan have pared their game down from six shots on target to just the one last time out. The natural end point of this graph, the real moment of fulfilment, would see Azerbaijan complete their next 0-0 with zero shots on target. Progress has been good so far. But only zero from zero will really do from here.

This isn’t just about the hard numbers. Chuck in a succession of empty, mist-wreathed central European venues, plus an overall run of two goals in their past 11 games, and there is a case this is already the most overtly nihilistic run in international football history – a kind of real-time performance art piece, the Azerbaijan FA’s response to Andy Warhol’s five-hour film of the actor John Giorno lying in bed asleep.

Although to be fair Giorno does turn over on to his back at one point, whereas Azerbaijan have stuck to a fairly rigid 4-4-2 throughout.

At which point, and with some sadness, it is necessary to acknowledge the intrusion of real life into all this frivolity. That goalless run is not the most notable thing about Azerbaijan football right now. Of far greater significance is the fact all those games have been played away from home, two months on from Uefa’s ruling that football is no longer safe in Azerbaijan due to the war with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

This has been a bloody affair. Russia estimates there have been more than 4,000 deaths. Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, has been hit by Scud missiles. Baku has declared a state of martial law. A fragile-looking truce is in place. But UK Foreign Office advice is not to go to Azerbaijan at all if you can avoid it.

Except, it seems, if you’re Welsh. Absurd as it may sound, under the current Uefa schedule the Wales squad will be turning up in Baku six months from now for their Euro 2020 tournament camp, a prelude to two group games at the Olympic Stadium.

This is still the plan. Get your passports out Wales fans. Scout the local bars. Ignore the local curfew, and the UK government’s suggestion that terrorists are “likely to try to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan”. Get ready for a feast of football. In the words of the Euro 2020 slogan, let’s “Live It For Real”. Although perhaps – as the military drone fleets descend – not quite this real.


The Olympic Stadium in Baku before Azerbaijan’s 0-0 draw with Luxembourg, part of a four-game goalless sequence. Photograph: Aziz Karimov/Reuters

The most obvious point here is that any plans to play football in Azerbaijan next summer should be scrapped immediately. Uefa will surely end up announcing as much very shortly. But the UK government should take the lead here and insist on an immediate rescheduling. Uefa may be dancing about trying to placate its host partners. But there is no sensible reason to follow it down that road.

This is not to suggest the problems of football fans are in any way central to what is a painful, long-standing mess. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is, Armenians contend, historically Armenian. It became part of Azerbaijan when Stalin reordered the region in the 1920s. At the collapse of the USSR Armenia attempted to claim it. Nagorno-Karabakh become a disputed, in-between place. Azerbaijan launched a full mobilisation to claim its legal territory in September this year.

Cue displacement, death, and an alarmed global diaspora. Kim Kardashian’s Armenia-facing posts to her 250m social media followers are seen as a significant geopolitical lever. In response Azerbaijan has wheeled out a message of support from (seriously) Ronaldinho.

And right now the world of anodyne, anthem-parping Uefa competition really does seem some way off. All of which raises a more specific question. Why exactly is European football heading to oil-rich Baku in the first place?

There is a case to be made this all comes from the same place. Regional “strongmen” – in this case Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, elected in succession to his father Heydar Aliyev – tend to enjoy posturing in all its forms, footballing and otherwise.

It is certainly unfortunate that Azerbaijan’s public image has been tainted in this respect. It is only three years since the Azerbaijan Laundromat scandal broke, a circulation of billions of pounds of dirty money around Europe, apparently with the intention of promoting Azerbaijan’s global reputation. Various European politicians have been accused of accepting what were essentially large sums from the Azerbaijan government.

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There is no established connection to football. But the timeline is certainly unfortunate from a PR point of view. 2012-2014: Azerbaijan Laundromat scandal. September 2014: Baku selected as host for Euro 2020 by Uefa. No doubt Uefa’s president at the time, Michel Platini, was entirely unaware of the Laundromat. By the time the news of its existence broke Platini had left his post, and been banned from football for four years in 2015 over a payment to him from Fifa that was found to be “dishonest”. Platini did at least get the chance to open the Olympic Stadium in Baku, which is still lined up as a home from home for Wales a few months from now.

What a shemozzle this tournament has become. There is a sad irony in the fact Euro 2020 was originally billed in 2012 as the product of a united Europe, a place where you can get on a plane to anywhere, and where anywhere is the same as everywhere. No boundaries, no borders: here was football’s celebration of the end of all that history.

Eight years on, welcome to our world, a place where Azerbaijan have four straight nil-nils but not, as yet, anywhere to play their fifth because home has become impossible. It seems inconceivable Wales will end up making that trip. But it would be best for everyone if a decision is made sooner not later – and with a clear lead on exactly why.