Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.

12 thoughts on “Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

  1. Thanks again Chris! Going to have to do a little better in promptness though. Making me wait 4 days was not good! Don’t use the scheduling bit as Antonio has that one wrapped up. lol

  2. Superbly written Chris yet again ,that was bloody windy in Baku that cold reminded me of last time in Bucharest ❄️☔️ 👌🏻Over land & sea

  3. Flew in from Jakarta via Dubai to see the game. Great city and a great trip. Superb blog and these experiences are what following football should be.
    Will

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