The richest team in England you’ve never heard of

by Seth Burkett

Oleksandr Saliy logs on to the FA website and sits with a contented smile. His team, by far the richest in England, are top of the league, justifying the vast sums of money invested into them. Indeed, such is the money going into Saliy’s team that any official from the UEFA Financial Fair Play regulation committee would have more than a passing interest in their affairs.

That being said, adhering to the fair play regulations could prove tricky. Admission to Saliy’s team’s games is free. Want to buy a replica shirt? You can’t. There isn’t even a club shop at the ground. Away fans? A rarity. Sponsors? Minimal.

That’s not to say that this is some pub team. This season alone they’ve had Portugal’s captain plying his trade in the middle of the park, and they also managed to entice one of Barcelona’s star players away from Catalonia. Yet still they struggle to attract crowds anywhere near three figures.

Despite this, things are on the up for Baku United futsal club.

Futsal in England has only recently been developed – its benefits and entertainment as a sport in its own right finally recognised following the success of the Spanish tiki-takka, modelled on futsal techniques. Over in Spain the sport is massive: games are televised on national television, teams play in front of capacity crowds and fans support teams with the same gusto of their football counterparts. In England teams play in cold, lifeless sports halls in front of a handful of onlookers, though the sport itself is growing rapidly.

The FA Futsal League was founded in 2008 and comprises three leagues: North, South and Midlands, with the top two from each feeder league going on to play in a grand finals. The winner of the grand final then qualifies to represent England in the UEFA Futsal cup.

The seeds that sowed Baku United were also planted in 2008 with the formation of the Odlar Yurdu Organisation – a group of Azerbaijani students in London who organised amateur futsal tournaments amongst themselves. The organisation would then select the best players from these teams and have them play representative matches against non-Azerbaijani teams under the name of Baku United.

The representative side enjoyed early success and, eager to be accepted into the National League, the Odlar Yurdu Organisation sought out the help of Spartans Futsal club. Spartans was an established futsal club who had undergone several reforms themselves – from Team USSR to White Bear FC, who then merged with Ipswich Wolves to form Spartans in 2009. In 2012 Spartans agreed to another merger, joining forces with the select team of the Odlar Yurdu Organisation and becoming Baku United Futsal club, members of the FA Futsal League South division.

The new club was seen by the Odlar Yurdu Organisation as an ideal way to develop British-Azerbaijani relations whilst promoting Azerbaijani culture within the United Kingdom. Success, they believed would only enhance these credentials. As such, Baku United attracted vast deals of investment into their futsal programme, allowing them to become the first team in England to pay their players.

Their triumph was immediate, aided by the mid-season acquisition of Chema Jimenez from Inter Movistar – one of the most successful teams in Spain – as Head Coach. Eager to have their talents financially rewarded whilst receiving the best possible coaching, the most talented players in England flocked to London to wear the blue of Baku. With these reinforcements and Jimenez in his new role Baku United won the Southern league convincingly before facing Helvecia in the grand final. Helvecia, a London-based team of Brazilians, had won the FA Futsal League every single season since its birth but this did not phase Baku as they overcame Helvecia to qualify for the UEFA cup.

Such triumph prompted the club to become fully professional for the 2013/14 season with even greater amounts of investment going in and even more elite players coming in. All other clubs in England remained amateur and the move, as would be expected, cemented Baku’s dominance of English Futsal. They are currently undefeated in the league, winning 13 of their 14 games, scoring 130 goals and conceding just 15. The UEFA cup also proved fruitful, and not only because the Odlar Yurdu Organisation was now able to promote Azerbaijani culture in the UK on the European scene.

Baku became the first ever English team to qualify from the preliminary stage of the tournament to the main round after comfortably winning all three of their games. They then only narrowly missed out on further progression to the elite stage after a last-gasp 3-2 defeat to Slovenian side Litija. Next season they aim to go one stage further, should they once again win the FA Futsal league, that is.

Baku have not been without their critics, who have questioned the sustainability of such a project, given that the club relies solely on investors for income, and criticised the growing hegemony of Baku due to their money and their ability to attract world-class players making the competition predictable. For every Manchester City there are ten Leeds Uniteds, and the whole project is the precise reason why UEFA founded Financial Fair Play in the first place, preventing teams from spending more than they have for short-term gains at the cost of long-term survival.

By and large, however, the resounding reaction to Baku and their wealth has been one of positivity. The stellar signings of players such as Arnaldo and Javi Rodriguez has not only helped to raise the standard of futsal in the country, but also the profile. With participation levels rapidly increasing, more clubs establishing youth set-ups, development leagues organised and more coaches eager to learn the intricacies of the sport, many feel that the influence of Baku is just the inevitable next step to the professionalisation of the sport.

The Odlar Yurdu Organisation will hope for just that, and that Baku can lead English Futsal into a new dawn. Should the money continue, of course.

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