In the US, Monday evenings are synonymous with football, albeit a pigskin-throwing, rumbustious American variant to what the rest of the world identifies as the ‘beautiful game.’ In Europe, however – and particularly in Azerbaijan – the world game (soccer to our American cousins) dominates. Europe’s second-tier pan-continental competition, UEFA’s Europa League, has become an inescapable part of Azerbaijani sporting life on Thursday nights. The competition has helped bind the country to the European family of nations and opened it up to new waves of tourism and visitors, previously unaware of this causeway between west and east.

I am particularly aware of the direct role that football can play in engaging youth in team sports and enhancing their sense of pride from my time as president of Gabala FC. We brought in Arsenal and England legend Tony Adams to manage the club and gave ‘Mr Arsenal’ scope to create the Gabala Football Academy – the largest incubator of young home-grown talent in the country.

Football normally divides towns, communities, even families, in terms of club loyalty. However, European matches in Azerbaijan see the entire nation and expats unite – particularly if the current Azerbaijani Premiership Champions Qarabag FK are playing. The first Azerbaijani team to advance to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League in the 2017–18 season have played a total of 87 games in UEFA competitions, winning 33 and drawing 22. Recently, they were pitted against Spanish side Sevilla, and on October 3 took on European minnows Dudelange of Luxembourg, thrashing them 4–1. This week Qarabag take on the current Cypriot champions Apoel Nicosia, having achieved a 2–1 victory in the ‘away’ leg in August. Being pitted against established European teams will only serve to raise the quality of the Azerbaijani game and hopefully inspire a new generation of budding Messis and Ronaldos.

Read my latest article for Emerging Europe.