It was a cold night in Baku. In December 2014, Qarabağ played their last match of their debut season in the Europa League group stage. Their opponents were Inter Milan and the mission was clear: to defeat Italians in order to make history and qualify for the next round.
At the last minute of additional time, Qarabağ made the unbelievable when Richard Almeida scored the decisive goal. Unfortunately, a wrong call from the assistant referee for offside disallowed it and the Azeri champions found themselves eliminated at the final whistle.
Back then, no one could believe that Qarabağ will do anything like this again. Almost three years later, Qarabağ are celebrating their first ever Champions League group stage qualificcation. Beyond their joy, there is a lot of hard work and passion that hides in their story.
Qarabağ is one of the most stable clubs in Azerbaijan. Their coach, Gurban Gurbanov, appointed in July 2008. During a decade as head coach, Qarabağ trophy cabin was loaded with four championships and four cups, making them not only stable but also very dominant at the domestic competitions. In Gurbanov era the team changed the style of the play with tactics based on the famous tiki-taka,using both local and foreign players, unlike other Azeri teams that prefer the foreign players.
Their run at the Europa League group stage became common. At the past three seasons, Qarabağ made the same journey, getting eliminated at the Champions League third qualifying round and qualifying to the group stage through Europa League playoffs. These performances were enough for them to be seeded in this season Champions League third qualifying round for the first time, which made their road to the Champions League playoffs much easier.
To be part of the world biggest clubs' tournament, Qarabağ had to eliminate F.C. Copenhagen. Twenty years ago, the teams played each other at the Cup Winners' Cup qualifying round. Back then, the Danish team defeated Qarabağ 10:0 on aggregate score. Nowadays, Qarabağ is completely a different team and their performance against Copenhagen was truly amazing, scoring a crucial and dramatic away goal. From being one of Europe's minions, Qarabağ is now one of the best 32 teams in the continent.
Though, not everything is perfect in Qarabağ. Their name hiding the history of the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh, the Armenian name of the region).
The club was founded back in 1951 and played at the city of Agdam. During the Soviet era, Qarabağ played at the Azeri regional league and it was obvious that they will join the new independent Azeri league after the USSR dissolved. In 1993 they even managed to win the championship for the first time.
Yet, the region was under conflict and the violence escalated. At the same year that Qarabağ won the title, the city of Agdam moved to be under Armenian control. Later on, their former stadium, the Imarat, was destroyed, their head coach died in the war and the city left uninhabited. The team forced to play in exile for years in Baku and got the nickname "Qaçqın Klub", The Refugee Club. Only few years ago they moved to new stadium, Azersun Arena, but at the European competitions they still play in Tofiq Bahramov Stadium in the Azeri Capital.
For many people Qarabağ is more than another Azeri team. In each symbol they honor their city and region. The use of white and black shirts is for the bright and dark sides of Qarabağ history. The horses are Qarabağ horses in their logo are part of the beauty of their abandoned city. These symbols are not only symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh, these symbols are part from the history of the whole Azeri nation, that wants to tell his story and his struggle for the region.
Slowly but carefully, Qarabağ have built a proud club with successful European campaigns each year. Now it's their chance to show it at the world's football main stage, Champions Leagie group stage.