What is footballing identity? As London gears down after the pandemonium of another North London derby, the answer to many Anglophile audiences will seem obvious.
The clash between Red and White intersects with all manner of divides – geographic, religious, political – and a Tottenham supporter is not interchangeable with an Arsenal fan were it not for the arbitrary choice of shirt in the morning.
When the Gunners’ new defender Shkodran Mustafi recently praised his new club’s identity, he presumably had more in mind than their playing style.
Born in Germany to Albanian parents originally from Macedonia, Mustafi knows just how complex identity can be and how little it can be taken for granted.
In the North London derby, the specificity of the contest is foregrounded in the very name
Footballing wisdom says that clubs take their spirit from the community around; the supporters are their lifeblood and the beating hearts of the cobbles around their inspiration.
For Qarabağ, just the second Azerbaijani team to reach the group stages of the Europa League, this puts their success in an even more impressive light.
Qarabağ sit second only to Fiorentina in their group, and a victory against Czech minnows Slovan Liberec would be enough to send them through to the knockout stages of the tournament.
Not bad for a team without a real home.
For all that FIFA is committed to keeping politics out of football – which can often be a grey area, as highlighted by the current furore over whether poppies constitute a political symbol – Qarabağ are one of the numerous teams who would laugh at this naivety.
We live in a political world; for clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk, playing their home games in Lviv over 500 miles away from their war-torn home, keeping politics out of football isn’t a matter of choice. For Qarabağ, the situation is much the same.
In 1993, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia decisively changed the history of Qarabağ.
The club’s hometown of Ağdam lay within the disputed region claimed by Armenia. Their coach, Allahverdi Bagirov, was killed in the conflict after running over a land mine. Qarabağ were forced to up-sticks and begin their longstanding exodus to the capital, Baku.
As the New York Times reported in 1994, Ağdam is today a ghost town. There is little left for Qarabağ in the town in which they were founded in 1951 and, like the steppe nomads for which they are named, ‘The Horsemen’ roam Azerbaijan without a true place to call home.
If Tottenham’s European troubles this season can be blamed on not really having a home ground, spare a thought for Qarabağ, the team known as ‘the refugees’, who haven’t seen their native Imarat Stadium – now destroyed – in over two decades. Their identity is a frail one, forged in the face of displacement.
Whilst conflict has forced Shakhtar out of the Donbass Arena, the conflict in Ukraine is a relatively recent affair and it is too soon to tell how it might end.
or Qarabağ, whose home region of Nagorno-Karabakh is at the centre of a longstanding geopolitical tug of war, the prospect of returning home seems incredibly distant.
Since 1994, Armenia have held the region on behalf of the ethnic Armenians located in Nagorno-Karabakh: they show little sign of moving.
Precedent suggests only a depressing outcome. In a similar situation, the Cyprus dispute has seen local heavyweights Anorthosis Famagusta located in Larnaca since 1974.
Like Ağdam, Famagusta is a ghost town to which the Cypriot team has never returned.
Success, English audiences might assume, would be harder than pronouncing the club’s name – which ends in an aspirated ‘ah’ sound for the same reason why you shouldn’t pronounce İlkay Gündoğan‘s last name as the type of canine used on a shoot.
Used to big money deals and glamorous moves to new stadiums, English teams are unfamiliar with the kind of resilience displayed by Qarabağ.
Yet Qarabağ have defied this apparent prognosis with aplomb. The Horsemen, following Neftçi Baku in 2012, reached the group stages of the Europa League in both 2015 and 2016.
Unlike compatriots Qabala, they have done more than act as whipping boys for the bigger dogs in the competition, getting the best of Greek giants PAOK in their most recent game.
This is a team that pulls together and spreads the load; Spanish midfielder Míchel, who made a brief cameo at Birmingham City just over half a decade ago, is their highest scorer in the group stage with just two goals.
Today, Qarabağ lie on the cusp of an unprecedented entrance into the knockout stages of Europe’s second competition.
Bearing the horse of Karabakh on their chests, these are the flagbearers of a displaced townspeople, and this the story of a team that wouldn’t give up.
This is something of a golden era for the clubs of the Caspian Sea. No longer is the appearance of Azerbaijan in European competitions restricted to their sponsorship of Atlético Madrid; in Qarabağ, Neftçi Baku and Qabala they have had three clubs compete in the Europa League in the past half-decade.
In nearby Kazakhstan, FC Astana – founded just seven years ago – can now boast of their second year in the competition.
In qualifying for the tournament’s latter stages, Qarabağ would beat the lot and truly put the icing on the cake.
It is hard to begrudge Qarabağ their success. Their story is what the Europa League is all about, the success of anyone and everyone if they just dream big enough.
Their support extends beyond Azerbaijan; many in Turkey, whose belief in Pan-Turkism prompts an affinity for Azerbaijan, greet Qarabağ’s success with happiness. Few in Azerbaijan would do any differently.
Under national footballing hero Gurban Gurbanov, Qarabağ have built a strong team focused around a core of Azerbaijani talent – going against the countervailing tendency of many clubs to buy in.
Under Gurbanov, the Horsemen won just their second Azerbaijani title in 2014. They have won every title since.
It is perhaps fitting that a club which enjoys this level of domestic success has been dubbed the ‘Barcelona of the Caucasus’.
Gurbanov is a man used to setting precedents. With a style described as tiki-taka, Qarabağ became the first Azerbaijani team to win a group game with their victory over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in 2014.
Now, the Horsemen want to take it even further, and even for Gurbanov Qarabağ are aiming for the stars.