Baku-based FC Neftçi marks 80th anniversary
Neftçi vs. Inter, a central match of the 23rd round of Azerbaijan Football Championship, started at 19:37. Such an unusual time was chosen in honor of the year of foundation of Azerbaijan’s oldest football club. The match began to the strains of the famous ‘football march’ by the Soviet composer, Matvey Blanter. FC Neftçi players took the field in retro-uniforms of that very year, when the team won the USSR championship medal for the first and last time. It was particularly pleasant to see on the bleachers a huge portrait of Anatoly Banishevskiy, FC Neftçi striker, whom the King of Football, Pelé, once termed a ‘a golden head’ for his excellent header.
1937 is also my father’s birth year. And he would have turned 80 in a month. I recalled my father for a reason. It was he who first took me to the republican stadium named after Lenin (this stadium now bears the name of the famous lineman, Tofiq Bakhramov, who awarded a contentious goal for England in the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final against West Germany (FRG)). If I’m not mistaken, it was 1976. At that time, Neftçi dropped down to the lower division and was hosting FC ‘Rubin’ Kazan. It was then that I first saw ‘Banya’, that’s how Banishevskiy was affectionately referred to by his fans. He was not in the shape he used to be before; he showed up at the end of the game for 10-15 minutes, but still he often scored! A year later, Neftçi returned to the Premier Leagues and Banishevskiy scored his hundredth goal in the USSR championships, thus becoming the first Azerbaijani (yes, indeed!) in the Soviet top scorers’ club.
Last time I was at the stadium with my father on May 9, 1990, at the Neftçi vs. Dynamo Moscow veterans’ match, held in honor of another outstanding Bakuvian, Alekper Mammadov (the one who scored 4 goals against FC Milan on its field). Those were hard times. There was a curfew in Baku, imposed on ‘Black January’ days. It was raining heavily during the game, many veterans got tired and asked to replace them, but Alekper Amirovich played until the last minute and then was signing autographs to fans for quite long.
There were many remarkable games. FC Neftçi many times beat the leaders, such as Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow, but, at the same time, it could suffer limp defeat to the outsiders. The ‘South Caucasus derbies’, i.e. the games against Dynamo Tbilisi and, especially, Ararat Yerevan, proved to be particularly tense.
We had our own bone to pick with Ararat. Few are aware that there were 6 Bakuvians in their championship composition, led by Eduard Markarov, one of the former leaders of FC Neftçi. We were jealous, angry, because the neighbors were stronger and won more often. Especially the guys from Tbilisi. There were few Georgians in Baku, but there were plenty of Armenians. And after such game, the militia had to work in emergency mode, some serious incidents also occurred. The ethnic issue was certainly the case, but, in my opinion, the ‘derby’ factor still prevailed. After London ‘Tottenham’ and ‘Arsenal’ games, the shop windows are often smashed too, not to mention the derby of the Istanbul grandees.
The first kick-off today, on the jubilee date, was made by another two veterans, Kazbek Tuaev, a striker, and Chingiz Ismailov, a goalkeeper. The first one later coached the national team of independent Azerbaijan, and the second one was an irreplaceable football commentator for years.
Once, FC Neftçi was on the cusp of being kicked out to the lower league again and it desperately needed to win in order to maintain its position in the premier league. It was playing against Kayrat Alma-Ata. 90 minutes passed, extra time, no goals, nil-nil. Chingiz disappointedly summarized the match: ‘Well, dear spectators, the referee is already looking at the timer, he is walking to the center of the field … regrettably, our team will spend next year in the lower league. But don’t get upset, we still love Neftçi… and all of the sudden: ‘Adə, vurdular !!!’ (roughly speaking, ‘wow, they scored !!!). It was our captain, Abdul-Gani Nurmammadov, who, at the very last second, angrily kicked the ball with all his strength from the field center and the ball miraculously flew into Kayrat’s net gate. Thus, we stayed in the premier leagues.
Our youth idols have different fates. Some of them have become government officials, some of them –the law-enforcement officers, someone is serving term in prison, someone has left the country and, regrettably, some of them are no longer alive. The team is now facing hard times. Neftçi is at the bottom of Azerbaijan championship’s tournament bracket. However, on the day of their anniversary, Neftçi players still managed to beat a rather strong team, Inter, 2-1. I would like to believe that this symbolic victory will be an important step towards revival of the Azerbaijani football flagship.