Qarabag brings the realities of occupation to Chelsea’s ground

Press Release: As many are aware, Qarabag FK is the ‘team that always plays away from home’. Located in Aghdam, the home ground came under fire from Armenian invading forces in 1993 as they occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions. Chief coach Allahverdi Bagirov was killed by a landmine, and the whole team eventually decamped to the Azerbaijani national stadium, named after Tofig Bahramov, the so-called ‘Russian linesman’, whose decision to award a penalty to the England team during the 1966 World Cup Final resulted in the historic win over West Germany.

The match also saw a group of Azerbaijanis and local supporters of Azerbaijan don T-Shirts spelling out the phrase ‘Armenia out of Karabakh’. 23 fans lined up with a letter on each T-Shirt to spell out the defiant phrase.

Affectionately named ‘The Horsemen’ after the eponymously-named Karabakh Horse – a small, sturdy, golden-haired beast frequently used in the Azerbaijani game of chovgan, an antecedent of polo – the Qarabag FK team have gone from strength-to-strength in footballing terms. Following impressive performances in the UEFA Champions’ League against fellow Caucasian team Samtredia (Georgia; winning 6–0 on aggregate), Sheriff (Moldova; winning 2–1 on aggregate), København (Denmark; 2–2 on aggregate, winning on away goals), the ‘Horsemen’ travelled to London to battle against Antonio Conte’s ‘The Blues’ – current champions of the English Premier League and winner of the UEFA Champions’ League in 2012.

This historic match left Qarabag FK unphased, with manager Gurban Gurbanov in combative mood saying: “We’re not scared of any of them. They have one of the best coaches in Europe and they have some of the best players in Europe. Even though Chelsea is an icon in the Champions’ League, and has a great chance to win this season, the team is ready and we’re going to play until the end.

“We know Chelsea are going to make us become defensive, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to spend 90 minutes in defence. We’re going to attack as well.” The team features Haitian midfielder Wilde-Donald Guerrier and Brazilian winger Pedro Henrique Konzen.

Sadly, his optimism proved misjudged. Despite playing in 4–5–1 formation, not enough players were thrown forward. Qarabag FK bravely strived to play a passing game, but they proved unable to outpass Chelsea, and some misjudged attempts to score sailed over the net.

Qarabag – which demonstrated great bravery in the face of adversity – is no stranger to the illustrious world of UK football. It battled Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur in 2015, and their 2–1 defeat against København was their first defeat in 20 matches.