Home 2002-03 – Umbro
The former Soviet state of Azerbaijan is located in the mountainous South Caucasus region at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, bordering such diverse – if mildly sociopathic -neighbours as Russia, Turkey and Iran. Consequently, Azerbaijanis are a tad confused as to their continental leanings. Nominally a Muslim people, you’d think think this would place them culturally firmly in Asia, however the country is a bit of a western closet case, adhering to the loosest, most secular brand of Islam where religious sensibilities are seen as something to mull over and debate, typically down the pub over a nice cold beer and a packet of pork scratchings.
In economic terms, Azerbaijanis quite literally have resources to burn owing to their proximity to the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the abundance of natural gas lurking just beneath the topsoil. In fact gas is so plentiful that pockets of the stuff regularly break the surface and can ignite without warning, a phenomenon which is especially bad news for smokers for whom sparking up at just the wrong moment can result in a severe ringing in their ears. Fortunately they’re typically no longer anywhere near their ears – among other appendages – by this point. Acknowledging these dangers, Azeri government gas officials have pledged to dispatch a highly-trained individual to look into the problem, although they can’t say whether it will be in the morning or afternoon.
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is considered an architectural wonder, as in you ‘wonder’ exactly what on earth they were thinking when they built parts of it. Reigning eyesore champion would have to be the unsightly Flame Towers, a trio of deformed, fin-shaped high-rises designed to resemble a joyful dancing fire because, as we all know, nothing promotes peace and stability quite like some burning skyscrapers. Elsewhere, the city is also home to the world’s largest KFC restaurant, capable of seating up to 300 unfussy (and most likely intoxicated) diners looking to take in the gastronomical delights of the colonel’s secret recipe. Spoiler alert, it’s chicken, grease and salt.
Since independence in 1991, Azerbaijani sporting successes have largely been confined to combat disciplines at the Olympics such as wrestling, boxing and judo. Ironic then that a complete lack of fight marked the national football team’s competitive debut during the Euro 96 qualifiers, resulting in ten straight defeats including a humiliating 10-0 whitewash against France in September 1995.* Following this disastrous initial foray, Azerbaijan’s progress has come in fits and starts with the odd semi-notable scalp here and there (Switzerland, Turkey, Norway) tempered by additional humiliations (beaten by Liechtenstein, thrashed 8-0 vs Poland, 6-1 vs Serbia and 1-0 vs Wales.) Put another way; even with the recent European Championship expansion and confirmed plans to do likewise with the World Cup, it’s still highly unlikely they’ll be putting in a tournament appearance any time soon.
*Admittedly this was the prototype for the France team that, within five years, would go on to become both World and European champions. However, outside of this ridiculously one-sided affair the French were actually struggling for goals, netting just 12 more times across their other nine fixtures. So, I guess we can put this result entirely down to Azerbaijani ineptitude after all.
Fun side note; the Tofiq Bahramov stadium in Baku is named after the linesman who awarded Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the 1966 World Cup final, you know the one that DEFINITELY crossed the line and has barely been mentioned since. Well, he was actually from Azerbaijan, which at the time was a part of the USSR so he became ignorantly dubbed “Russian” by people who couldn’t differentiate this from the term “Soviet.”
So, to summarise, Azerbaijan’s biggest contribution to the global game was a chap sporting a flag and a sumptuous moustache who, depending on your nationality, was either blind as a bat or as eagle-eyed as an, errrm, eagle.
Where did it all go wrong for Umbro? Back in 1994 the famous old brand were not only supplying kit for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales but for several prominent Latin American nations including Mexico, Colombia and, most impressively, the World Cup winning Brazil team. Skip ahead to 2003 and the client list had a distinctly less illustrious feel to it, featuring some fairly random national teams including Albania, the UAE and of course Azerbaijan.
This design – worn during the predictably unsuccessful Euro 2004 qualifying campaign – bears some resemblance to the England kit of the same era, replacing the red stripe through the crest with the appropriate blue, red, green tricolour and the three lions with a nifty flame badge which resembles something you might award to a cub scout after their first successful attempt at rubbing two sticks together.