Ganja, the second largest city of Azerbaijan, witnessed the birth of Veli Kasumov 48 years ago. Kasumov, Kassumov, Gasimov – no one seemed to ever get his name right, but in truth he was probably one of the most gifted footballers ever forged by the Soviet Union. After impressing for Neftchi Baku PFK, Kasumov joined FC Spartak Moscow in 1992, although his experience at Oleg Romantsev’s highly-synchronized team proved to be an utter disappointment; restless, he ended up joining city rivals FC Dynamo Moscow for the rest of the season.
Such change had a huge impact on the talented 23-year-old forward, who finished that campaign as the league’s top scorer with 16 goals from 17 matches. His superb performances in the UEFA Cup that year, especially in the match against Torino FC at the Stadio delle Alpi, earned him a place in Spanish football as Real Betis secured his signature in 1993. He did manage to put up some very decent performances for the Andalusian team, but ended up leaving the club in 1995, first to represent Albacete Balompié and later Écija Balompié, before leaving to Portugal in 1997.
Already a heavy consumer of Eastern European football back in those days, I was absolutely delighted with having Kasumov play in my home country. The talented Azeri forward walked his class across Portuguese stadiums, and I still remember his wonderful free-kick goal for Vitória FC against SL Benfica at the Estádio das Antas in Porto. Kasumov eventually hung up his boots a few years later after representing second tier side Imortal DC for two years until 2001. Since 2007, he has opted for a managerial career instead, working first for his country’s national team as an assistant coach and later for his all-time favorite club, Neftchi Baku PFK, as head coach, until his sacking last September.
Kasumov was probably the most remarkable Azeri player of all time, and the first to play in a major European football league back in the 1990s. But now, Azerbaijani football is once again under the spotlight after the side’s solid start to World Cup qualifying. The man responsible for this thrilling start has been Robert Prosinecki, the Yugoslavian wonderboy who won the Golden Ball at the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship and lifted the European Cup just a few years later with Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda).
Azerbaijan’s international record as an independent country is far from impressive, but things seem to be on the verge of immense change. Prosinecki took over at the helm in December of 2014 after the departure of Berti Vogts. The national team has played 14 matches since his arrival and, although some might claim that a sheet of just three wins and six draws is not an impressive achievement, the truth is that the side has improved drastically in every department after Prosinecki’s arrival. The Azeri have only recorded a single defeat – yesterday against Northern Ireland – since last March, but the two wins and one draw they have pulled off at the World Cup qualifiers so far have allowed them to sit solidly in third place, level on points with the Northern Irish and seven points behind the all-powerful Germans. Azerbaijan didn’t have the best of days at Belfast last time out and, although recording superiority in possession, they were ultimately defeated by a far more experienced team.
The same thing didn’t happen, however, in the previous group matches, especially against Norway at Baku, where Prosinecki’s men were forced to hold on tight in defence and apply quick counter-attacks in order to contain the visitors’ attack-driven game. But, in the end, they pulled off a memorable 1-0 win thanks to an early goal by Medvedev.
Although most of their players are perfect strangers to the average football supporter, Azerbaijan currently have some talented footballers among their ranks. Versatile midfielder Dmitri Nazarov is probably the team’s most experienced player, having spent the entirety of his professional career in German football. Nazarov is undoubtedly Azerbaijan’s key man, with most of their attacking movements initiating from his feet.
Nevertheless, there are other quality players in the team, such as 20-year-old forward Ramil Shedayev. Ramil was developed in the FC Zenit football academy and, for some time, was seen as one of their most promising players. After spending a few seasons in their farm team, Shedayev failed to record enough play time at FC Zenit’s first team and opted instead for a move to Turkish side Trabzonspor FC last summer.
Goalkeeper Kamran Agayev is also an important asset to the team; he is currently enjoying some excellent form after having joined former Portuguese champions Boavista FC back in September. Another interesting player is FK Gabala’s versatile forward Ruslan Gurbanov, who has already scored six goals for his team so far this season.
Prosinecki’s Azerbaijan are definitely not a team packed with football superstars, but they are, on the other hand, a group of talented and hardworking players that, in combination with their head coach, want to make their mark on European football. It is impossible to predict whether the Azeris will manage to grab themselves a place in the upcoming World Cup, but it is blatantly obvious that if they manage to continue down this path, they will certainly have a word to say in the near future.