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Tuesday, March 29, 2005
King Carlos on the brink

Dan Brennan

On Monday morning the Azeri sporting press was rife with reports that Carlos Alberto had resigned as head coach of the national team, following their 8-0 debacle in Poland at the weekend. The Brazilian eventually resurfaced claiming that rumours of his demise had been exaggerated. They may, in truth, have been a few days early.

Though he is adamant he will be sticking around to see out his recent contract extension that takes in the remainder of the qualifying campaign, it would not be a huge surprise if another heavy defeat tomorrow against England sees him fall on his sword.

It is all a far cry from the scene a year ago, when the Brazilian was hailed as a messiah. His unveiling as Azerbaijan's new head coach prompted many into a double take. A World Cup winning captain in charge of a country most people would struggle to find on the map? Some mistake, surely?

Azerbaijan's most famous football man, after all, was a linesman (you know the one - Tofiq Bahramov - whose goal-line call nudged England along the road to World Cup glory in 1966), and most people think he was Russian.

The Brazilian laughed off suggestions that he had misplaced his pin on the football map, when choosing his next destination. Having spent three weeks being shmoozed by the suits in Baku, he declared himself smitten by the Azerbaijani capital and its citizens.

'I came to Baku with an open mind, and an open heart, and got a very positive feeling,' he waxed. 'They weren't able to offer me the money I might have got elsewhere, but sometimes money is secondary and you do things for the good of the game.'

He would have quickly realised that his ability to do good work was going to be tested to the max, as he took charge for his first game last February - a 6-0 roasting at the hands of Israel in Tel Aviv. It is unlikely, though, that he realised just how tangled a legacy he was inheriting off the pitch.

Azerbaijani football was still trying to find its legs again after a prolonged dispute between the country's football federation and the government-run Olympic Committee brought the game to a virtual standstill in 2003.

For the best part of 18 months, football became the arena for a bitter game of power politics. In one corner stood, former federation head, Fuad Musayev, ex-Communist Party chief of Baku. In the other was, Ilham Aliev, then head of the Olympic Committee, and now president of Azerbaijan, having succeeded his dad Heydar Aliev.

  • Until Carlos Alberto guided them to victory in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan had not managed an away win in 10 years.

  • In 2003, Transparency International's annual Corruption Index ranked Azerbaijan as joint sixth most corrupt country in the world.

  • Click here for more facts.

  • Aliev junior, himself a keen 'sportsman', was once rumoured to have spent 4million at the casino in one weekend (prompting his father to close down the country's gambling joints) - accused Musayev of dipping his fingers in the federation pot, to siphon off cash from UEFA handouts. Things got really messy when the Government had Musayev's colleague, Oktai Zeinalov thrown in jail for financial irregularities.

    For over a year not a single match was played in the domestic league. The lowpoint came in April 2003, when Azerbaijan was temporarily ostracised by FIFA and UEFA.

    Throughout all this Musayev stood defiant, saying he would 'rather die than resign'. In the end he did neither. The end to the impasse came when Ilham Aliev succeeded his father as the country's president, and ushered in a new regime at the football federation. He also played a part in luring the Brazilian World Cup winner to Baku.

    And life under Carlos Alberto started well. At one point, the Azeris strung together an unprecedented five match unbeaten streak, managing draws against Wales and Northern Ireland. It prompted the Brazilian to declare on the eve of England's visit last year that, while his boys might not make it to Germany, the 2010 World Cup was a target, and in the meantime, the plan was 'to show the rest of the world that Azerbaijan can play football and put the country on the map.'

    After restricting Sven's team to a hard fought 1-0 victory, the Brazilian's rhetoric appeared justified.

    However, after Saturday's 8-0 Polish debacle - the largest defeat since a 10-0 mauling by France in 1995 - the extended honeymoon is most definitely over. There are dark mutterings that the team had regressed to the level it was at before the Brazilian took over.

    Sections of the Azeri press have accused him of misguided squad selection and tactical naivety. Potential replacements are already being mooted, among them ex-USSR player Igor Ponomarev, father of current Azerbaijan player Anatoliy, and head coach of Azeri league leaders Karabagh.

    In refusing to bow to prima donna demands by several established players, Carlos Alberto has alienated several members of his squad. Among those to fall out with the Brazilian is Zaur Tagizade, who has said he would only play if guaranteed a place in the starting eleven. Other 'refusniks' included Mahmud Gurbanov and Samir Aliyev.

    Against Poland, the Brazilian's favourite player, the libero Rashad Sadygov, who scored Azerbaijan's only goal of the campaign so far - a memorable 40-yard equaliser against the Welsh in Baku last year - was surprisingly pushed forward into an advanced role, depriving the team of its defensive anchor.

    Many have also been puzzled by the decision to reinstate 29-year old keeper, Dmitry Kramarenko, after a six-month stand-off with the federation saw him refuse to play for the national team. Though he looks good on paper, having played for CSKA Moscow, Kramarenko is an erratic performer and there is a groundswell of opinion that feels his place should go to the in-form pretender, Hasanzade.

    Whatever happens as a result of the games against Poland and England, there is no denying that, by his very presence, Carlos Alberto has helped to put the feel-good factor back into Azeri football over the 12 months.

    He might not have transformed the Azeris into Samba kings - that would take the touch of a Midas - but he has generally, discounting the Polish debacle, turned out obdurate and well organised teams. 7 defeats in 16 games is a respectable tally for a team ranked 116th in the world.

    It is true that some of Carlos Alberto's rhetoric has proved fanciful: hopes of naturalising Brazilian players, and plans to turn England's visit to Baku into a 'festival of football' with his old mates Pele, Beckenbauer and Hurst in attendance, went unfulfilled.

    But the fact that just two years after it was cast out by the international governing bodies, the AFFA is now confident enough to consider a bid to host Euro 2012, suggests that the Brazilian has done his bit to 'put the country on the map.'

    By 2012, Carlos Alberto would expect his Azerbaijani adventure to be several items down the list on his CV. Another heavy defeat against England and he may have cause to freshen up that document sooner than planned.

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