Baku from the brink, part two

As promised, a report on Finland’s game in Azerbaijan. IK is a member of Suomifanit, the official Finland supporters group. I hope writing this has been therapeutic for him:

The mother of all cock ups?

As you will see, this is not a proper match report. I think that’s only fair, since the 90 minutes of sado masochism we had to endure didn’t really resemble a football match.

Now, following Finland has never been for gluryhunters. But before our last match the chances of us making it to Euro 2008 looked decent enough, and the overall mood amongst everybody even remotely interested in football was actually quite cheerful.

The optimism did endure a few bumps and bruises even before the ‘match’. The Soviet style bureaucracy at the airport coupled with the ‘we’ve got all night’ attitude of the Azeri border guards was quite an experience.

Eventually, after queuing for a few hours and then paying 60 euros to a handlebar moustachioed official for the joy of entering Azerbaijan we finally set out to find our lodgings.

Our digs were situated a 15 minute walk from the city centre. The apartment was quite spacious and comfortable enough but rather chilly as there was a draft and the heating left a lot to desired. That didn’t really matter though, since we only really spent the night there.

For a hopelessly spoiled and ignorant westerner like me Baku offered little to see, the city seemed to be a combination of Soviet architecture and office buildings, new skyscrapers built with oil money, a few modern hotels, crumbling old houses, kebab shops & ex-pat pubs. I didn’t bother to cultivate myself by going to the local opera or ballet, visiting the ‘eternal fire memorial’ or trying the cruise around the Baku harbour though, so what do I know?

I did however meet quite a few interesting characters, some new faces from our travelling support and a few ex-pats who all made up a great bunch. There was hardly a dull moment in Baku or in our favourite haunt ‘The Corner’, which shall always be my favourite bar in the southern Caucasus (nazdrovje Misha!).

After a few days of sight seeing (it was quite a large bar), the match day loomed. Around 100 Finns were present at the bizarre looking Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, most of whom had made the trip with Air Baltic. In addition, there was a group of Finns resident in Azerbaijan (why anyone in their right mind would even contemplate that is beyond me).

Then of course there were the four guys who had covered the journey in a mark 1990 Lada from Oulu to Baku (as you do). In the end, they clocked around 16,600 kilometres through the former Soviet Union.

Now really, that was no small feat. In Azerbaijan alone, the word ‘traffic’ seemed to be a synonym for suicide. For me, the surreal taxi ride from the city centre to the stadium was enough; traffic lights and speed limits were there to be ignored and it also seemed perfectly kosher to drive the wrong way down a one way street. Amazingly enough we made it to the stadium with no lives lost or major injuries.

Now, as I mentioned earlier the Tofik Bakhramov is not your average football ground, in fact it looked more like the setting of Ben Hur or some other 1950s Hollywood sword and sandal spectacle. The pitch certainly looked like Spartacus and the lads had played horse polo on it.

The Finnish support had slowly made its way to their section, surrounded by hordes of coppers. As our boys started their warm up, singing and chanting soon began. Little did we know then, that our lads wouldn’t bother to break much sweat after running those few laps and playing the odd game of ‘piggy in the middle’.

I shall refrain from uttering out loud my feelings about the ‘game’ itself. I’ll merely point out that blind, over 80 year old Eskimos with artificial limbs could have done a better job then ‘Roy’s boys’ did that night.

What happened to the guys who beat Poland away last September and followed that feat by almost beating Portugal, the 4th best team in the last World Cup?

Was it another case of the Finnish fear to win, à la Finland vs. Hungary 1997?

When everything looks fine and dandy, let’s just make a right mess of it so we can concentrate on acting out the stereotype of the average Finn; being a sad miserable bastard and drowning your sorrows in a bottle of Koskenkorva while contemplating topping yourself?

Quite a few questions. However the most important is whether we can get over the debacle in Baku and still mount a serious challenge to make it to our first ever major tournament.

Come June we shall have the answer.

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