You can’t keep good clubs down, even if they don’t have a place to call home

This is the story of two neighbouring football teams, who, in a normal world, really should be playing regular derbies, since their grounds are less than half an hour away from each other. Once upon a time, in the days of the Soviet Union, they did just that.

Except, you see, there’s a problem. One team’s ground is a pile of rubble in a ghost town with a population of zero, excluding stray dogs. Which is why, until 2009, they played their football in exile, a six-hour bus ride away. The other club’s stadium is fine. The problem is, as far as Fifa is concerned, it is in a state that does not exist.

Which is why the team moved 200 miles away to another country, renamed themselves after that nation’s capital and played in its league for a decade, just so that they could be part of
world football.

Then, in 2007, they returned home because a sense of identity can be more important than being in the nether regions of Fifa’s football pyramid.

The irony is that both clubs have historically had the same name:Karabakh in English, Garabag in Armenian, Qarabag in Azerbaijani.

Today, one is called FK Qarabag and plays in the Azerbaijani league; the other is known as Lernayin Artsakh Stepanakert, but was previously called Karabakh Stepanakert (and, during its time in exile in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Karabakh Yerevan).

Were it not for the Dutch writer-photographer duo of Arthur Huizinga and Dirk-Jan Visser, whose book was recently published in the Netherlands, most of us would never have heard about these clubs and their fans. When we think of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we usually do so in the context of the end of the Cold War and the diminished threat of nuclear annihilation. Yet one of the side-effects of independence was that age-old ethnic disputes could now bubble over.

So, about 20 years ago, the majority Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the newly independent country of Azerbaijan became the scene of ethnic fighting. By the time a ceasefire was reached, in May 1994, thousands were dead and the Armenian army had control of the region, even as it remained a part of Azerbaijan. Eighteen years on, the Nagorno-Karabakh is still in limbo, a state that is recognised only by three other non-UN states.

Stepanakert, left with no league to play in, joined the Armenian league. Fifa would not allow them to play in Armenia, however, since they were technically from Azerbaijan. So the club moved to the Armenian capital, changed their name and basically played in empty stadiums for a decade, before returning home in 2009.

Qarabag had to move, too, mainly because their home town, a city of nearly 50,000, no longer exists. Aghdam, were Qarabag had been based since their founding in 1951, was an Azeri base during the conflict and was flattened by Armenian artillery. Among the worst-hit was their ground, the Imarat Stadium.

As a result, Qarabag moved to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. To the refugees, living in tents outside what had been Aghdam, it became a critical point of reference, a link to the recent
past. Most weekends, busloads of Qarabag supporters would pile into buses to make the 12-hour round trip to Baku, watch their team play and, perhaps, keep their town’s flame burning.

Qarabag were actually quite successful, qualifying for European football on a number of occasions. But, still, hundreds of miles away from home, the club felt rootless and disenfranchised.

Whether or not we ever get a happy ending to this tale now depends on the diplomats and the politicians, which suggests that it’s a good idea not to hold your breath. Instead, you’re grateful for little things. Three years ago, Qarabag were finally allowed to move closer to home. (Going home, of course, would ” be impossible, since it no longer exists.) They now play in the Quzanli Olympic Stadium. It’s a tiny, 2,000-seat ground, but at least it’s only a few few miles away from where Aghdam once stood and is easily accessible to the tens of thousands of displaced refugees.

As for Stepanakert, they are still not on anyone’s football map and likely will not be for a long time. But Nagorno-Karabakh at least now has its own national team. They are unrecognised,
of course, which means that they are footballing pariahs and any Fifa member who play even a friendly against them face a ban. But there’s no shortage of unrecognised footballing nations in
the world today. There’s talk of a friendly against Abkhazia and possibly Kosovo.

Football has a way of enduring, even when pitted against the self-destructive stupidity of mankind.

One team’s ground is a not recognised by Fifa ” pile of rubble. The other club are in a state that is.

Contributed by: Armenag Topalian – London

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