Football: Oil boom fuels rise of football in Azerbaijan

Football: Oil boom fuels rise of football in Azerbaijan
This file photo taken on October 14, 2009 shows Wales' coach John Toshack attending a World Cup 2010 qualifying football game against Liechtenstein in Vaduz.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - For a manager who has coached at Europe's most successful club, signing up at a provincial Azerbaijani football team might not seem a likely career move.

After a conversation with the billionaire owner of Azerbaijan's Khazar Lankaran, however, former Real Madrid coach John Toshack says that he was convinced enough to take the plunge earlier this year.

"I am the sort of person who is always ready for a new challenge and so I said, 'why not?'" Toshack, who has also coached the Wales national team and played for Liverpool, told AFP.

Few football fans outside the oil-rich former Soviet state would likely be able to point out on a map Lankaran - a town of just over 80,000 on the Caspian Sea - or know much about Azerbaijan and the state of the game in the country.

Buoyed by billions of dollars in oil revenues, over the past decade Azerbaijan has seen an economic boom under the authoritarian rule of strongman President Ilham Aliyev that has seen ritzy skyscrapers shoot up in the capital city Baku and the country play host to events such as the Eurovision song contest.

Now, football seems to be catching up.

'I was surprised in a good way'

Owned by Azeri-Turkish shipping magnate Mubariz Mansimov - who served as a Soviet-era intelligence officer and is also known by his adopted Turkish surname Gurbanoglu - Khazar Lankaran is one of the clubs leading the way.

The current squad has a smattering of South Americans and Spaniards and the club was linked to a mega-bucks contract offer for former Arsenal winger and Russia captain Andrey Arshavin last season - although officials there say it was all just rumours.

"When I got here I was really surprised in a good way about the level of football in Azerbaijan," says Toshack. "In our team we've got some pretty top-class players."

Khazar Lankaran is not the only team that has significant financial backing.

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