Khazar Lankaran: Another Load of Tosh

Here at Lost Boyos, I think we are both in agreement that the greatest Lost Boyo ever, and probably the greatest Welsh football ever, has to be John Charles. I’m sure almost all would agree. However, John Charles’ mere two stints at playing overseas with Juventus and a more short-lived spell at Roma are nothing compared to the itinerant ways of the man we would probably consider the second greatest Lost Boyo ever: John Benjamin Toshack.

‘Tosh’ has already made a couple of appearances on this site , thanks to his country-hopping ways, but today we’re going to focus on his latest exploits on the continent, this time in the most auspicious of places: Azerbaijan  – more specifically Azerbaijani club side, Khazar Lankaran FK.

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As I’m sure most are aware, Toshack earned his managerial spurs by taking then Division Two Swansea City from the third tier to the top flight and even came close to winning the First Division in the early 80s, before the club fell away towards the season’s close and ended it finishing in a highly respectable 6th place; this is still Swansea’s highest ever league finish. Incredibly, there is a chance (admittedly, the slimmest of them) that Tosh could end up squaring up to his former club with his current crop in Azerbaijan in the qualifiers of the Europa League over 30 years after he departed the old Vetch. It does seem nigh on impossible that Khazar Lankaran will wield enough firepower to get through the 1st and 2nd round of qualifiers to enter the 3rd round qualifying stage in which Swansea City enter, but the puppeteers who control the mystic powers of football have a funny way of setting up such fixtures.

Anyway, who the hell are Khazar Lankaran in the first place?

The club is not even ten years old but there are very haughty ambitions emerging from within. Khazar were formed in 2004 by Azerbaijani entrepreneur Mubariz Mansimov – the man who made a multi-billion fortune through his own shipping company. Only a year before the Khazar’s formation, Chelsea had been taken over by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich who decided to douse the newly-christened ‘Chelski’ in his oil money with a series of high profile and high costing trasnfers; with Khazar being formed by their own billionaire a year later the club was dubbed the ‘Caucasiain Chelsea’ in an ode to their strong financial backing. Following their formation, the club immediately flexed their financial muscle with the signing of former Turkish international and all-round Turkish journeyman Oktay Derelioğlu for €200k from Turkish club Akçaabat Sebatspor- a Azerbaijan Premier League transfer record which still stands.

Khazar joined  Azerbaijani football three years before the nation’s football switched from the ‘Top Division’ to the more independent Azerbaijani Premier League (or the ‘Topaz Premyer Liqası’ to give it its real name)  in 2007. Over its history, the league had been dominated by the nation’s most famous team, Neftchi Baku PFK, but the emergence of new clubs in the early 2000s, such as Khazar, threatened their domestic domination.

In their first season in 2004/05, Khazar immediately stamped their authority on the league by finishing joint top with Neftchi Baku, only to lose the title 2-1 in a championship play-off final to the nation’s biggest club. The games between Neftchi Baku and Khazar would become the biggest derbies in the country, known as the Böyük Oyun (‘The Great Game’). Neftchi have come to represnt the ‘capital club’ whilst Khazar have become synonymous with the southern states of the country. This is no local derby, but instead a representation of two conflicting regions of Azerbaijan – a classic north/south feud. Predictably for an Eastern European rivalry, the Böyük Oyun comes with a fair amount of conflict and there have known to be numerous violent confrontations between both sets of fans, although both clubs’ fans also like to demonstrate their hatred towards one another in a more creative and artistic form, usually through the use of colourful and inventive banners displaying certain messages.

At the conclusion of the 2004/05 season, Khazar had the 2nd and 3rd highest scorers in the league in Samir Aliyev and record signing Oktay Derelioğlu, but they were pipped to the Golden Boot by FK Karvan’s Zaur Ramazanov. To remedy this, Khazar pulled out the cheque book again and soon Ramazanov was a Khazar player ready for the 2005/06 season.

In 2006/07 Zaur Ramazanov would win the league’s Golden Boot once again, as he helped fire Khazar to their first league title in only the third season of their existence. The club’s 2006/07 season would be a historic double winning season with Khazar clinching the Azerbaijan Cup alongside their league title; they would retain the cup the following year. Khazar’s success between 2006 and 2008 suggested that they could be about to embark on a period of domination, but they are still yet to win the league again after finishing 4th for 3 consecutive seasons, followed by two runner up spots, until they finished a lowly 8th in the last campaign.

Despite the club’s lowly position, the club have qualified into the Europa League thanks to their cup exploits. Once again, Khazar made it to the Azerbaijan Cup final at the end of May and Toshack had the chance to secure silverware only months after joining the club. Sadly for the Welshman, Khazar were beaten on penalties by rivals by Neftchi Baku after a 0-0 draw during the first 90 minutes and extra time. However, due to Neftchi winning the league and entering the Champions Leage, Khazar qualified for the Europa  thanks to to the virtue of being cup runners up.

This will not be the club’s first tour of Europe – the club’s past success in the league and cups has meant that they have qualified for the UEFA Cup/Europa League on numerous  occasions, just as they have for this year’s competition. Their first few conquests into Europe saw the club crash out in the opening qualifiers to the likes of Moldovan club FC Nistru Otaci and Polish side Lech Poznań. There was one foray into the Champions League qualifiers in 2007/08, following their title winning season, but the club succumbed to Dinamo Zagreb at the first qualifying hurdle.The club’s best efforts in the competition have come over the past two years with the club making it through to the 2nd round qualifier only to lose to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2011/12 and once again to Lech Poznań  last season. After improving their progess in the competition over the past two seasons, can the club take the next step this season and make it through to the 3rd round qualifiers along with Swansea City? It’s very doubtful, but only time will tell.

In March 2013, Lost Boyo John Toshack was appointed manager of Khazar Lankaran with the aim of restoring them to the top of the Azerbaijani Premier League. Toshack is the most experienced and well travelled Lost Boyo of them all having managed in Spain with Real Madrid (twice), Real Sociedad (three times), Deportivo and Real Murcia; Turkey with Besiktas; France with Saint Etienne; Italy with Catania and most recently in Macedonia as Tosh took charge of the nation’s national team. Toshack has signed up for several ‘projects’ across the continent over his career, yet he has never really hung around long enough to see them through (or the club haven’t let him hang around). It’s early days for Tosh and Khazar to tell whether he’ll hang around for his latest ‘project’, but there are certainly signs that Khazar are highly ambitious.

After Tosh had arrived in Azerbaijan, his arrival was soon being overshadowed by another story coming out of Khazar: the story of their pursuit for Andrei Arshavin. The writing has been on the wall for Arshavin’s Arsenal career for quite some time now (I recently wrote an article for OOTB about Arshavin’s demise if you are interested) and it was no surprise when the Gunners announced that the Russian would not have his contract renewed beyond June 2013. Transfer rules dictate that a player is allowed to speak with other clubs when they enter the final 6 months of their contract and Khazar wasted no time in getting in touch with the Russian captain. On signing for Khazar, Mansimov promised Tosh a sizable transfer kitty, something that was made clear with the high wages being offered to Arshavin. According to reports, initially the Russian was offered somewhere in the region of £100k a week in March, but Arshavin wanted to remain in London and had no intention to move his family to Azerbaijan. Now that there appears to be no interest in Arshavin from any of the London clubs (or any other British club it seems) Khazar have pounced and offered astronomical wages to him, with some reporting that the wages being offered are close to €2 million a month; to put that into perspective, Leo Messi – the greatest footballer of my generation – earns €1.6m a month at Barcelona. The wages on offer to Arshavin would make him the highest paid player in world football. Toshack is expected to land his man on a one-year contract with the possibility to sign a one-year extension.

Toshack has a decent team at his disposal with an array of Romanians remaining at the club from the managerial reign of Romanian coach Mircea Rednic. In fact, less than half of the squad is Azerbaijani with a whole range of nations represented from Morocco to Croatia. No Eastern European team would be complete without a small collection of Brazilian footballers and Khazar are no different with their samba collective consisting of Vanderson Scardovelli, Éder Bonfim and Junior Nildo; managing Brazilian footballers must be a world away from the likes of Steve Evans and Ben Thatcher who Toshack had at his disposal as Wales manager. Also amongst the squad is former Betis goalie Toni Doblas, a player who would made a name for himself in La Liga during the first half of of the 2000s.

All the best to Tosh in Azerbaijan. I can still dream that a miracle will lead his team to draw Swansea in the third round of Europa League qualifying (and that they’ll lose to Swansea of course).

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