Two years ago there were no female football players in Azerbaijan, a muslim country between East and West with Baku the capital on the Caspian Sea. FIFA decided that the newest of its World Cups, the Women's U 17 version should take place for the very first time, not just in a Muslim nation, but in Europe.
The two previous tournaments in 2008 and 2010 were held in New Zealand and Trinidad & Tobago. The AFFA, the governing body, with the help of friends in UEFA and FIFA, set about to recruit and identify promising young women for the team that will qualify automatically as the host nation. There are now about 600 active women playing The Beautiful Game, and a German coach, Sissy Raith has been brought in to give the team a sporting chance next autumn.
Six stadiums will be used, five in Baku and one down south near the Iranian border in Lenkaran, a hotbed of football fever about 4 hours drive. Three years ago I flew into Heydar Aliyev International Airport on a one hour flight from Tbilisi, Georgia, and was suprised by what I found on a short visit.
We in England are always grateful to 'The Russian Linesman' at the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley where I watched not far from the Royal Box. Tofig Bahramov was his name and he wasn't Russian at all. He was from Baku in what was then the SSRA, The Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, twenty one years after becoming independent it has a thriving economy, based on the oil wells off the coast.
I went on the excellent metro system to the Tofig Bahramov National Stadium, named after the famous official, who later became General Secretary of the AFFA, and I went to sit in his old desk in his old office. England played there in 2004 and Tofig's son and Geoff Hurst who scored a hat-trick in 1966 unveiled the huge statue of his father. Where else will you see such a referee's statue?
Another trip was 40 minutes down the coast on a bus No. 20 for about 30 cents to The James Bond Oilfields, a tourist site commemorating the opening scenes from the 1999 movie, The World is Not Enough, starring Pierce Brosman. www.ronsblog.com . 10/3/2009 to 10/5/2009 (3 blogs).
At this weeks EUROPEAN FORUM in Manchester www.soccerex.com I visited the AFFA Booth and spoke with Ms. Nargiz Mammadova, LOC Coordinator and Mr.Vugar Rustamil, Volunteering Director, about the 16 team tournament which will be held from September 22 - October 13th. This summer Baku will host the Eurovison Song contest and is a candidate city for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. When I was in town there were no matches being played because the men's national team was training in Germany under coach Bertie Vogts.
ELEVEN HEARTS, ONE GOAL and LIVE YOUR GOALS are the themes of AZERBAIJAN 2012. The place is called ODLAR YURDU -The Land of Fire, due to previous fire worshipping and the federation's logo uses this fire theme. Despite being 90% sunni muslim, there is no state religion, and I saw very few women wearing a head scarf. No problem buying alcohol, but I spend happy hours in the CAFE ARAZ near Fountain's Square, drinking green tea and watching locals play NARD, a kind of backgammon board game, outdoors under the trees and watching European football on T.V. At the moment the country is in a two year spell as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
Lots of spectacular new developments, including a 65,000 seater Olympic Stadium and a new Flame Towers, 3 skyscapers with offices, residential, shops and entertainment, built of glass looking like flames. Built at a cost of 350 million USD and 182 metres high they are a golden glass spectacular sight. The Baku Bay looks like Copacabana and has a pleasant promenade with lots of trees, bushes, plants and flowers. The main streets have high end international stores and reminded me of a mixture of Rodeo Drive, South Beach, Miami and Fifth Avenue. Another street, with 24 shops had 22 selling cell phones and the other two were money exchanges. However, the old town and it's cafes, carpet sellars and old buildings are still preserved.
Half the teams have already qualified: Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia from CONMEBOL; Ghana and Nigeria from CAF, with a March 30th play-off between Tunisia and Gambia for a third spot; AFC, Korea DPR, Japan and China; OFC will hold their finals between 9-14 April in Auckland, NZ; CONCACAF in Guatemala in mid August and the UEFA finals in Nyon, Switzerland 26-29 June.
the organizers are interested in attracting 1,000 volunteers to help with the event, and welcome foreigners.You will be well fed and supplied with a uniform. For more info look at www.affa.az, firstname.lastname@example.org. LET'S MEET IN BAKU IN SIX MONTHS TIME.