General Secretary of the Azerbaijan Football Association, Elkhan Mammadov, says sport provides ample opportunities for diplomacy, mediation and cross-cultural communication
Sports and politics have long gone hand-in-hand. Whether through high-profile institutions or international tournaments, sporting competition provides ample opportunity for diplomacy, mediation and cross-cultural communication and thereby remains an important facet of international relations.
While sporting events have historically been used as a means of making political statements – such as the widespread calls to boycott the German Olympics in 1936 – they hold more importance as a means of opening and maintaining communication between states. A famous example is the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ used to reconcile tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, but sport has also been used as a tool to help end Apartheid in South Africa and as a symbol of peace when the Olympic teams of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) marched together at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Sport teaches the value of teamwork, good communication, hard work and the importance of all players – no matter their roles. Through sport, diverse countries can unite in enjoyment of the game and promotion of these common values. It is the role of sporting institutions, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), to help share these values and love of the game both in new markets and to wider audiences.
In recent years, Azerbaijan has emerged as a passionate participant in international tournaments. Azerbaijan has a long history of sporting endeavour, with traditional games such as wrestling, chovgan (similar to polo) and chess. However, in recent years the country has embraced international competitions by hosting the first European Games in Baku in 2015, by participating for the first time in the European Grand Prix in 2016 and by taking home an increasing number of Olympic medals over the last six consecutive games – achieving 18 medals from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics!
However, I would argue that one of the greatest recent successes of Azerbaijan’s sporting history is the rising domestic popularity of football. Today, the Azerbaijan Football Association (AFFA) has over 100,000 registered players, making it the largest sporting association in the country.
As General Secretary of AFFA, I have witnessed how embracing football has formed a positive impact on the lives of athletes in Azerbaijan – especially among women and youths. Only ten years ago, there were no national women’s football teams, but now we have over 9,000 female players registered with AFFA, as well as a Women’s A National team who won 3-2 in a recent international friendly match with the UAE. Equal opportunities for women remains a major global challenge today, but through the medium of sport, values of equality can be promoted. Azerbaijan’s hard work in this area was recognised when the country was awarded the Women and Sport Achievement Diploma by the International Olympic Committee in 2013.
Football has also provided an opportunity to introduce Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani businesses to the rest of the world. AFFA has developed several high-level partnerships with organisations such as UNICEF and Hyundai. It has also been successful in its bid to attract international football events such as FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012, UEFA U-16 European Championship 2016, plus the UEFA EURO 2020 group matches and quarter final. Azerbaijan’s state energy company, SOCAR, became an Official UEFA Euro 2016 Sponsor and Azerbaijan telecommunications provider, Bakcell, is the first official telecoms and broadcast partner of Manchester United in all CIS countries. As a result, more countries than ever know about Azerbaijan and its unique culture while more opportunities have opened for Azerbaijan to form links with other nations.
Sport is one of the key ways for lesser-known countries to share their culture, engage in international diplomacy and participate in the exchange of ideas. One of the most successful institutions at supporting these values, is UEFA. AFFA joined UEFA in 1994 – two years after the country was established. As a member of the European Football Confederation, Azerbaijan has been able to receive guidance from UEFA on football development and expertise on a range of sporting matters, from developing grassroots and women’s football, to forming clubs and national teams. But more than that, through UEFA, AFFA has been able to raise international awareness of Azerbaijan, attract tourists to the country and develop it as a sporting destination.
Lying on the outermost periphery of UEFA’s geographical boundaries, Azerbaijan is a great example of the positive gains to be made from participating in international sporting events and institutions. As UEFA seeks to broaden its reach into new markets like Azerbaijan, there are valuable opportunities to share the game with new audiences and to promote sporting values and diplomacy in new regions. UEFA makes progress one of its key missions and helps to implement new projects in member countries that focus on a range of activities such as: the ‘Respect Campaign’, Grow 2020 strategy, social activities and the development of volunteering movements. This helps to create a common culture among participating countries and football fans, and which also upholds values of caring for others and supporting communities. Not just domestically, but UEFA also uses football to create unity between member countries, regardless of their size and importance. The upcoming UEFA EURO 2020 is an excellent example that shows how 13 European cities unite and contribute to one major event. Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is proud to be one of the cities taking part.
As countries continue to develop, often along different paths, there will always be a need for diplomacy through alternate means. Where conflicts continue to occur for reasons of geography, economy and religion, sports remain a safe space in which to communicate and interact. While diplomats work towards long-term solutions in the political sphere, international sporting events and organisations allow for soft diplomacy and cultural exchange between fans, united in their love of the game.
Elkhan Mammadov is General Secretary of the Azerbaijan Football Association (AFFA), Project Leader for UEFA EURO 2020 Baku Bid, Vice-President of UEFA Fair Play and Social Responsibility Committee, FIFA Fair Play and Social Responsibility Committee Member and a candidate in the upcoming UEFA Executive Committee elections.