Azerbaijan’s rise to fifth place in the recent European Championships, beating Ireland into sixth, may have raised a few eyebrows but was a disappointment for a ruthlessly ambitious country. Even more surprising was that their team included five newly ‘nationalised’ Korean teenagers.
So, what exactly is going on in Azerbaijan? Well, first up, President Ilham Aliyev is determined to get the Olympics to Baku in 2016, describing it as a place where “you can make a country famous”. As such, money is being pumped into sports across the board to raise the country’s sporting profile. Hockey is no exception and Minister for Tax, Fazil Mamedov, is overseeing its growth.
This influx had led to the first fully professional hockey league in Europe. National coach of Azerbaijan, as well as leading club Atasports, Tahir Zaman was given a brief to bring in talented hockey players from around the world to promote the level of competition in the national league. Atasports signed up five Indian youth players last April on five-month contracts, 3 from the Shahbad district, one from Chandigarrh and one from Delhi.
Atasports finished fifth in the Eurohockey club championships in May, hosted in the capital Baku. This was one of three tournaments to be held in the city in a 12-month period, having already seen the Champions Challenge competition and next year’s Olympic qualifier. Hosting three top tournaments is a result of Ataholdings, an Azeri government holding company, agreeing to sponsor the FIH.
The Korean issue, though, was big enough to be the only story of the Manchester Championships to make it onto Sky Sports News. Six Korean born players were initially signed on 10-month contracts. They soon married Azerbaijani men in consecutive wedding ceremonies on the same day and then obtained their passports with consecutive passport numbers. Five of the players were the included in the national squad. Asked if the Koreans had married in order to play, Tahir said “That’s a personal matter in their private lives and not an issue for the coach”.
The haste in which the player’s passports were rushed through led to the British Home Office delaying the production of visas. The Korean players, who gained their first caps in the tournament, passed IOC and FIH rules on nationality and Azeri Field Hockey Secretary General Adil Pashayev saw this as a deliberate attempt to hamper their campaign. “There was no illegality… I think these problems were created by English team leadership. It was the provocation of the English.” The players subsequently lost their opening match to Germany 7-1, after arriving late to the tournament and effectively knocking them out of a potential top 3 spot.
When questioned about mass nationalisation, vice-president of the Azeri National Olympic Committee Chingiz Huseynzade said this is a characteristic not only in his country but also all over the world. “Half of the French national team are Negroes. Nationalised sportsmen are participating in the composition of the teams of Arabian countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, England, even US team. We should participate in this process if we want to succeed in sport.”
It is an interesting take on representing your country. A Government article entitle “Sport: Transformation to a national idea” states that when Azerbaijani athletes compete, they dream of standing on a pedestal and “hearing his national anthem and making his country famous all over the world”. Whether their players will have heard their national anthem ever before, though, is a moot point.
Think Ireland should start hiring some international help? Ireland have drawn Korea in their Olympic qualifying group, could our chances be improved if Azerbaijan snaffle a few more of their players? Have your say, leave a comment…