Twenty years after the signing of a Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, Agdam remains a ghost town, its battle-scarred buildings steadily crumbling, its streets being relentlessly reclaimed by nature. But in an athletic quirk, a football club representing the town has been crowned the champion of Azerbaijan’s Premier League.
When the 2013-14 season concluded in mid-May, FC Karabakh Agdam stood atop the 10-team standings, five points ahead of the second-place finisher Inter Baku. It marked the second regular season championship for Agdam, the first since 1993, the year the town was overrun by Armenian forces during the hottest phase of the Karabakh war.
Agdam is still unable to play home games in its hometown; the area remains under the control of Armenian forces and is used as a buffer zone. Only a few hundred farmers inhabit the surrounding area. Peace talks that could potentially pave the way for the resettlement of Agdam remain stalemated, with no visible chance of a breakthrough in the foreseeable future.
As a team in exile, Agdam to a great extent has been embraced by the Azeri nation, and it now has a nationwide fan base. Currently, it plays most of its home games in the capital Baku at Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, the largest football venue in the country with a 31,000 capacity. The stadium hosts all international football matches, including World Cup qualifiers. On occasion, the club plays a home game at a 2,000-seat facility in Guzanli, a village situated not far from the town of Agdam.
That Agdam’s home field is in Baku makes a political point in Azerbaijan, underscoring the fact that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration has made the recovery of Karabakh, as well as the occupied Azeri lands surrounding the disputed territory, a top priority.
Winning the Azerbaijani Premier League qualifies Agdam for Europe’s most prestigious club competition in 2015, the UEFA Champions League. While Agdam is not expected to advance far in that tournament, its presence among the titans of European football will give the Azerbaijani government an opportunity to play up the fact that the Karabakh conflict remains unresolved.
The UEFA Champions League title game for 2014 is scheduled for May 24 in Portugal, pitting two Spanish clubs, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, against each other.
Agdam has tasted success before in European competitions. In 2009, the club defeated the Norwegian team Rosenborg in the UEFA Europa League tournament, a lesser competition for European clubs than the Champions League.
Some of Agdam’s top players are already looking forward to the 2015 UEFA Champions League tournament. "This is the first title I have won in Azerbaijan and I'm so happy,” said Muarem Muarem, a Macedonian midfielder who joined the club in 2013. “Now we have good chances to win some matches in European competitions.”