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Made in Azerbaidzchan
You know the soup looks suspicious. You eat it anyway. Only consolation is that nobody wants to mark you close because your stomach is upside down. Azerbaidzchan is not just hard to spell, it is also hard to swallow.
You always hope that the draw for any qualification doesn’t lead you to these former Russian countries. They are not exciting, big games and travelling there is rarely a pleasure. And in the end of the day they all know how to play football well and they also all know how to get best out of the visitors. Sometimes the circumstances are as tough opponents as the actual football side.
In Azerbaidzchan everything that is not poor, is poorer. There was a dog lying in the hotel garden. Next day the same dog was lying in the exact same position. When mentioned to the hotel stuff they kindly removed the late Puppy. Probably to the kitchen. The local food and western stomach didn’t have an understanding.
It is not the promised land of football culture either. At the stadium remarkably resembling an old warehouse or a barn they seemed to have recently grown potatoes at the pitch. Probably the field must have dried out for agriculture and they decided to play international football games there instead. All the passes on the ground reached the target in the air. It was good to have an excuse though, but the level of the game suffered.
We won easily 1-2, where the scoreline flattered the opponents. I was bit dissapointed though, since I could have scored in the end. Overall it was a job done but not a pleasent trip. I try not to judge but I have not a high opinion about football circumstances and the society in Baku.
I know. Who am I to judge this country and question their society? I am just a player who has to go to play there for few days and I can only see the life through a bus window and at the hotel lobby. I should really just be happy of getting the three points and a diarea and leave the country for good. So when flying back with a dodgy plane and a stomach in the middle of the night I decided never to go holidaying to Baku.
I might be wrong but this is just my vague experience of this place, like from every place. In my opinion even Wales feels a heaven after this shocking trip to former Russia. It actually seems like that the UEFA seatings also equal the standard of the country. You feel immediately that you are in the higher ranking of a country and football nation. The luxury of having television channels in an understandable language and actually being able to walk outside without having the feeling that you could get mugged at any time is already a change to Baku.
And the final crown and contrast is the stadium. Millennium Stadiums brilliance multiplies when you come there from Baku’s “Stadium of Old Barn”. Also the game is different: in Wales it is an honest and good game without all the small World War:s all over the pitch and you can actually give a throw-in without having to worry that a bottle will hit your head. It finished 1-1 but I felt we should have got much more of it, but fair play to welchmen: they defended well and good luck for them to the qualifications. Overall I felt privileged to play in such a fine country and football nation as Wales.
So in last two weeks I have been in Finland, Azerbaidzhan and Wales. Overall past the years the football has led me to 17 countries so far. And it is not just occasional international weeks that you are on the road. After coming back from Wales, it is just a change of underwear at home and straight to Sunderland.
Air miles come with the job. Because of football I have seen half the world, travelled my young life. So I should have a great future as a tourist guide. Not. If you ask me what one should see in Paris, Sunderland or Sicily, I could easily give the briefing of the sights I know: a hotel, the airport and the football stadium. What a trip that would be to anyone!
Many people say they are jealous because I get to travel to all these exotic places. Yeah right… the street life of Lissabon is beautiful, Oman has the greatest beaches, French kitchen is world famous, the culture of Rome is indefinitely magnificent and there is nothing better than the sights of Prague – I have heard.
Having enormous amount of air miles and getting an impressive collection of passport stamps is all that there is. Footballers’ world’s conquering is all the same: controlled daily routines of training, eating and sleeping plus occasional coffee at the hotel lounge. I have only experienced that all the hotel breakfasts, the pillows and the pay-tvs are uncomfortable in all the languages.
Overall I have spent between 70-100 nights in hotels during every year. You can imagine what possible there is to do one fourth of the year in faceless lobbies or dusty hotel rooms! It is a shame because sometimes there could be great sights just around the corner. But in the end of the day you have a job to do and often you just count the time when you will be back home.
So the daily routines are the same no matter what the area code is. It is just the circumstances that change. You would think that a hotel is a hotel and football is football wherever you go, but it is never that simple. You never really know what to expect on the road and still you have to be prepared to adjust to all of it. If you are not able to adjust or don’t like surprises, you have already given an edge to the opponent.
As said you know pretty much what to expect when you play Watford at home or Belgium away, most of the time it is just another day at the office. However you don’t expect that you get dyarea from the lasagne in Azerbaidzhan. You don’t expect that the pitch in Estonia is like a blue lagoune. You don’t expect a receptionist girl in Wales is charming. You don’t expect that they place you to the best hotel in Ukraine, a ship that is. You don’t expect that the players have to collect a whip in the airplane to pay us away from the country of Albania since the locals wouldn’t let the plane get off without getting some grey money first. You don’t expect that the Sultan of Oman wants you as good visitors to loose the second international friendly to his own boys. You don’t know what to expect when nobody speaks your language or the referee looks like local car-dealer. It is never just another day in the office.
It gives you a bit perspective to see different cultures and adjust to different circumstances. But in the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the pitch is a potato field or the soup tastes dishwashing water, there is still job to be done – a chance to play football. Football is a great language. It is just spoken differently in places. Like the soups are made.