- Associated Press
Saturday, May 3, 2014

GENEVA (AP) - Atletico Madrid’s stunning run to the Champions League final also signaled the arrival of another new player on European soccer’s biggest stages.

Atletico’s players will walk out to face Real Madrid - and an expected global television audience of 175 million - with “Azerbaijan Land of Fire” on their shirts in Lisbon on May 24.

For Azerbaijan, that’s a jackpot payoff for a sponsorship deal that’s part of a wide-ranging effort by the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet Union republic to become more visible to global soccer audiences.

Expect to see a lot more of it at future UEFA matches.

From Sept. 7, the name SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) will feature on pitch-side advertising at most 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Europe. Its brand will also appear at all 51 Euro 2016 matches in France after signing up as a top-tier sponsor with UEFA.

And Azerbaijan’s top aim could be achieved on Sept. 19 if UEFA chooses Baku among 13 host cities for Euro 2020.

“We think that will be the biggest target we can achieve for now,” Elkhan Mammadov, general secretary of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) said in a telephone interview Friday.

Like Qatar before it, greater exposure for Azerbaijan from spending sovereign wealth to project a softer image through soccer will also bring more scrutiny. The country of 9.5 million people nestling next to the Caspian Sea, bordering Russia and Iran, has long been criticized by human rights and anti-censorship groups.

The long-term soccer project in Azerbaijan was requested by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003 and later abolished term limits.

“Football is important in the country and is supported by the government and by the president himself,” Mammadov said. “The president signed a decree order for the development of Azerbaijan football between 2005 and 2015 which covers development of the infrastructure, and youth and women’s football.”

The strategy delivered a first FIFA tournament, the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, in 2012. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were brought to Baku to perform at the opening and closing ceremonies, respectively.

Azerbaijan will also host the European Under-17 Championship for UEFA in 2016. The main sponsor is SOCAR, whose president Rovnag Abdullayev also leads the soccer body and is a lawmaker in Aliyev’s government.

Announcing the wide-ranging SOCAR deal one year ago, UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein pointed to the company’s “aim to become a global energy company.”

SOCAR’s retail operations include dozens of petrol stations in Switzerland, including one in Nyon near UEFA’s lakeside headquarters.

Though hosting low-key youth tournaments are partly investments in goodwill with FIFA and UEFA, the Atletico shirt deal signed midway through last season has paid off spectacularly.

An initial 18-month deal, worth a reported $16.6 million, has been renewed for a further season. That means league-leading Atletico could soon be parading Azerbaijan’s historic slogan as Spanish and European champion in the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, played in Morocco in December.

Atletico’s 3-1 win at Chelsea on Wednesday capped an important week for Azerbaijan’s sports image, following its Euro 2020 bid and the announcement that Baku will stage a Formula One race next year.

Baku is also hosting the inaugural European Games in 2015, using a new Olympic Stadium the country hopes will one day stage the Summer Games.

The national Olympic body, led by President Aliyev, has twice been rejected by the IOC as a candidate.

“Slowly, we can become a sports hub in Europe. (The European Games) shows that Europe is also trusting us,” said soccer official Mammadov, a member of FIFA’s social responsibility panel.

The sports world’s faith in Azerbaijan is not shared by activists alleging restrictions on free speech and elections, plus corruption levels that are among the worst in Europe, according to Transparency International.

Mammadov pointed to financial and political stability, suggesting: “I don’t see any reasons for some of the people to consider us as a negative.”

Azerbaijan has such standing in soccer that FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s first public duty on being re-elected in 2011 was going to Baku with UEFA President Michel Platini. They laid foundation stones at the stadium.

The country has yet to find much success on the pitch, though, although its national team can perhaps also target Euro 2020 as a competitor, with the new Nations League offering possible qualification through the Division Four playoffs. It plays the World Cup-bound United States in a friendly in San Francisco three days after the Champions League final, and its German coach Berti Vogts is then set to help U.S. counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann with his preparations for Brazil.

Azerbaijan is still trying to get a club team into the Champions League, with Baki and Neftci having previously been eliminated in the qualifying rounds. Neftci did play in the Europa League group stage last season and held Inter Milan to a 2-2 draw at San Siro.

“At least to compete in the Champions League group stages - I would say it is realistic,” Mammadov said.

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