By Alastair Watt –
What lures a Liverpool legend and former Real Madrid head coach to the relative and distant obscurity of the Azerbaijan Premier League? “A new challenge” claimed John Toshack in March 2013 when he took charge of FK Khazar Lankaran, a club owned by a shipping magnate and yet to celebrate its tenth anniversary.
Nearer Iran than the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, the coastal city of Lankaran on the Caspian Sea seemed a suitable spot for the weary Welshman to regroup after some recent managerial misadventures.
His six-year reign as manager of his home country saw Wales nosedive to “bottom pot” status before his tumultuous tenure ended in 2010 with the Welsh having dropped outside the world’s top 100. His managerial stock, which peaked in 1990 when he guided Real Madrid to the La Liga title, had plummeted but was still sufficiently high to be appointed head coach of Macedonia in the autumn of 2011.
A slender 1-0 win over Andorra was Toshack’s solitary competitive victory before the Macedonian FA, citing his reluctance to relocate to Skopje, brought an abrupt end to a not-so-prosperous partnership and, as many thought, a long and colourful career in management.
However, a full thirty-five years since Toshack took his first managerial assignment at Swansea City, salvation arrived from an unlikely source.
Toshack Steers the Shipbuilders to Safety
Undeterred by this apparent downfall, billionaire owner Mubariz Mansimov offered Toshack the position of head coach at Khazar Lankaran in March 2013 at which time the club were flirting with relegation from the then twelve-team Azerbaijani Topaz Premyer Liqası (Azerbaijan’s Premier League).
With the league splitting in two after 22 games the 64-year old inherited a squad in the relegation group, six points from what would be an embarrassing drop.
For a town best known for its shipbuilding industry, the Khazar fans – known as Fırtına (the Storm) – admired Toshack’s safe navigation through the remaining fixtures as they remained 8th. With league security assured, the Welshman further endeared himself to the locals by reaching the Azerbaijan Cup final thereby ensuring Europa League qualification.
A reported 20,000 fans turned out at the national stadium in Baku (named after Tofiq Bahramov, also famously, yet inaccurately, known as “the Russian linesman”) for the final between Khazar and Neftchi Baku who had just clinched their third league title in a row.
The rivalry between the sides is the greatest in Azerbaijani football, with Neftchi representing the nouveau riche north and Khazar the less salubrious south of the country. The animosity has grown rapidly as Neftchi, the establishment club of Azerbaijan who once finished third in the Soviet Top League in 1966, had their stranglehold on domestic trophies loosened by emerging clubs such as city rivals FC Baku and Inter Baku as well as Khazar.
Khazar’s solitary league title so far arrived in 2007 with Inter Baku’s triumph in 2010 the fifth season in a row the previously dominant Neftchi had missed out on the top domestic prize. They responded like any disgruntled big club and spent big in the transfer market, with Chile’s Nicolas Canales and Belgium’s long-forgotten forward Emile Mpenza just two of numerous well-paid foreign players to serve Neftchi as they return to prominence.
Fans refer to clashes between the clubs as Böyük Oyun (The Great Game) but that was not a fitting description of this particular encounter as 120 goalless minutes elapsed before Khazar’s Greek striker, who was subsequently released, tragically missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out as Neftchi sealed the Azerbaijani double.
Nevertheless, Toshack had done enough to appease Fırtına and more importantly Mansimov who then handed the Welshman resources to strengthen a squad which, according to the Welshman on arrival, had already “some pretty top-class players.”
Turkey’s seventh richest man dropping anchor in Lankaran
From the nearby town of Masali, solider-turned-entrepreneur Mansimov established FK Khazar Lankaran in 2004 with a clear ambition to challenge the big clubs in Baku, and to compete in European completion – perhaps even against his beloved Besiktas.
Much of his wealth – Mansimov’s net worth is an estimated $1.1 bn – has been yielded from Turkey where he is a citizen. At 45-years old he is Turkey’s youngest billionaire and Forbes list his shipping company “Palmali” as the fifth largest in the world.
With substantial financial muscle to push his plans forward, Khazar rose rapidly both on and off the pitch. At a cost of $15m, construction of the Lankaran City Stadium – locally dubbed the Arena of Storms – began immediately and Khazar’s new 15,000 all-seated home was ready for the club’s maiden championship winning season in 2006/07.
The same season Khazar lifted the Azerbaijan Cup with a 1-0 win over MKT Araz in the final but since then, like a young bachelor after an overly romantic first date, Mansimov has struggled to maintain an upward trajectory.
Results in European competition were encouraging as they forced Dinamo Zagreb to extra time in the 2007 UEFA Champions League first qualifying round but the shipping magnate grew frustrated and eventually looked overseas to replace title-winning manager Agaselim Mairjavadov in 2010.
Perhaps inspired by the revered work of Mircea Lucescu at Shakhtar Donetsk (see Futbolgrad’s The Shakhtar Donetsk Code) and the club’s own success in the post-soviet era, Mansimov turned to Romanian coach Mircea Rednic to spearhead a more cosmopolitan approach at Khazar.
Fresh from a humbling experience at North Ossetian club Alania Vladikavkaz where he was sacked despite achieving promotion, Rednic proceeded to flood the Khazar squad with a raft of no fewer than eleven fellow Romanians plus the likes of Costa Rican Winston Parks (who himself joined on loan from a Romanian club) with on average three to four Azerbaijani players featuring regularly.
This reluctance to nurture native players earned the Romanian few local allies but did yield some success as Khazar finished second, just a point behind winners Neftchi with whom they agonizingly drew 1-1 on the final day.
A subsequent victory in the Azerbaijan Cup final over Inter Baku capped an acceptable campaign but with tensions increasing about the growing Romanian presence at the club and a feeble exit from the Europa League qualifiers to Moldova’s Olimpia, Rednic was removed.
Toshack will be abundantly aware of the need for quick and sustained success, especially as a foreigner. Rednic reigned for 16 months, and in the same length of time since his departure Khazar went through a further four managers (one Turk, one Azerbaijani and two Spaniards) before the appointment of the Welshman.
Unmoved by his Romanian predecessor’s unpopularity (or possibly completely unaware of it) Toshack too demonstrated a willful disregard for local talent in his first pre-season. Of his eight new acquisitions, only two were Azerbaijani along with an assortment of nomads from Morocco, Brazil and two of the Welshman’s former haunts – Spain and Macedonia.
Gabala – “It’s not like Edinburgh”
Toshack elected not to entice any players from the UK, perhaps learning from a younger colleague’s experience.
In 2010, former England and Arsenal captain Tony Adams swapped southern England for the South Caucasus as he not too begrudgingly accepted a reported 1 million euros per year contract to take over at Gabala FC.
Adams’ new lease of managerial life didn’t last long despite the best efforts of star signing Deon Burton, the Jamaican journeyman of the English lower leagues, who top-scored for the club with 8 goals.
Upon returning to England he claimed the Azerbaijani top flight was “League 1 standard” and also spoke highly of the local cuisine. He recalled “there’s everything (author’s italics) you could want, even a McDonalds.”
The following summer, Adams again bought British with the then Hibernian stopper Graeme Smith who fled the goalkeeping graveyard of Easter Road to join Gabala. The Scot, now at Brechin City, was stunned by the football infrastructure of the country.
“Their budget was 10 to 15 times that of SPL clubs” exclaimed Smith to the Scottish Daily Record. Despite Qabala being Azerbaijan’s most ancient city and a popular domestic tourist destination, Smith wasn’t overly enamored by his surroundings, boldly observing “it’s not like Edinburgh”.
With Gabala languishing in sixth place, Adams lasted only three months of his second season before he resigned citing family reasons. Subsequently, members of Adams’s British-bought contingent, which also included Terry Cooke, the one-time Manchester United and Manchester City winger, also trudged homeward.
Feeling the Heat in the Land of Fire
Toshack’s lifespan on the Caspian Sea is unlikely to outlast Adams if his multi-national gathering of well-travelled players, their CVs long and their motives unclear, continue to falter.
The reward for the aforementioned cup final appearance was what proved a forgettable stint in Europa League qualifying. After slithering past Malta’s Sliema Wanderers in the first round, Khazar were dealt a sobering 10-0 aggregate thrashing by Maccabi Haifa including an 8-0 defeat at the Lankaran City Stadium.
Whether attributable to their devotion or a lack of other amusements in Lankaran, the Khazar support continues to turn out in good numbers. Toshack’s latest setback, a 3-0 home defeat to FK Qarabag – the now homeless club from Agdam in the Armenian-occupied region of Nagorno-Karabakh (see Futbolgrad’s Offside – Football in Exile) – for whom one of the league’s many stranded Brazilians Reynaldo scored twice, drew a just below average crowd of 7,500 and, as such, Khazar remain one of the best supported clubs in the entire South Caucasus.
Of Khazar’s summer signings, only Brazilian striker Nildo, who is presumably just passing through after spells in Vietnam and the lower leagues of Poland, has made much of an impact. He is responsible for four of Khazar’s lean, manager-endangering total of nine league goals to date.
While current league form and the European indiscretions do not reflect kindly on Toshack, he should have earned himself some breathing space with victory in the Azerbaijan Super Cup over Neftchi on October 23 in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan.
However, as a frequent occupant of the managerial merry-go-round, Toshack knows that even bringing home silverware to the sparsely populated Khazar trophy cabinet doesn’t ensure longevity.
Bearing in mind the track record of impatience shown by his Turkish shipping magnate paymaster, if league results don’t improve then Toshack will be looking for another port to escape the storm.
Alastair Watt is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains. You can follow Alastair on Twitter @tbilisidon