Daughters of the Land of Fire: Women’s Football in Azerbaijan

Author: Konul Shahin / The Caspian Post

Women’s football in Azerbaijan persists and grows amid challenges, with rising participation among girls in Baku and other regions. Despite challenges, the Azerbaijan Women’s National Football Team holds the 76th position in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings out of 192 countries.

Azerbaijan Womens Football Team

Mana Mollayeva during an Azerbaijan vs Montenegro match. Image: courtesy

For Mana Mollayeva, her interest in football started with a soccer ball that her cousin brought her while visiting during a summer vacation. Born and raised in the Zagatala region of Azerbaijan, Mana spent her summer holidays playing in the garden with this ball and decided to be a football player.

Beginning her football journey at 12 in the local Zagatala club, Mana attributes much of her success to her first coach, Shaban Shirdanov, whose guidance played an important role in shaping her skills and ambitions.

In 2017, she was transferred to Russia’s Kubanochka (Krasnodar) team and was noticed as one of the team’s best players. In 2019, she was transferred to Russia’s Ryazan-VDV club.

Mana Mollayeva, now a successful midfielder of the Azerbaijan Women’s National Team, is also a player of Baku’s Neftchi FC.

“My mother was my greatest supporter, and later, my father also backed my passion for football. Knowing that my family and friends are proud of me is my biggest motivation,” says Mollayeva, emphasizing that football has taught her resilience and enabled her to rise stronger after every setback.

The history of women’s football in Azerbaijan dates back to the Soviet period. In the 1980s, teams began to be formed to develop women’s football in the USSR. Among the women’s football teams created was “Bakili,” where Irada Guliyeva and Mehpara Aliyeva were well-known players.

Azerbaijan’s women’s football team joined the Euro Championship qualifiers in November 2006. But in 2009, AFFA axed the team. They were revived in 2019, and played in the EURO-2021 qualifiers.

Image: AFFA

Despite its difficulties, the Azerbaijan Women’s National Football Team ranks 76th in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, which includes 192 countries. Last year, the Women’s National Team finished the UEFA Nations League as the group winner with five wins and one draw. Additionally, this year, the national champion club will earn the opportunity to participate in the Champions League. The team’s players also play for teams such as Türkiye’s Galatasaray, Trabzonspor, Beşiktaş, Greece’s PAOK, and Russia’s Zenit.

One of the obstacles to women’s football in Azerbaijan is the imposed stereotypes. But the situation seems to be changing. According to Mana Mollayeva, people have become more open-minded towards women’s football compared to previous years, but sometimes female football players can also face condescending attitudes: “I have come across words such as ‘Your place is in the kitchen’ and ‘Go sit at home’ many times. But this does not stop girls with great ambitions,” says Mollayeva.

Agasef Osmanli with Baku Juniors players. Image: courtesy

Agasef Osmanli, the manager of Baku Juniors Club, which has three teams in different age categories, says that it is important to turn girls’ interest in football into an opportunity and highlights the necessity of initiating the promotion of women’s football in schools: 

“Interest in women’s football is low, but it is pleasing that the interest is increasing day by day. National competitions are held without TV broadcast. This causes women football to lag behind in terms of popularity and deprives the club of income such as broadcasting rights. There is an infrastructure problem, too. The number of stadiums for training and matches is insufficient. Especially in Baku, you have many teams, but there is no space in the stadiums.” 

Brilyant Suleymanova. Image: courtesy

Brilyant Suleymanova, a former Baku Junior’s Club player, was born and raised in the Shamkir region of Azerbaijan. Despite her early interest in football, cultural norms in her village discouraged girls from participating in sports.

Brilyant, who started her professional football career at 18, met a female football player after moving to Baku, and watching her matches in the Premier League inspired her. “When I saw young people wearing AFFA uniforms while getting on the subway, I suddenly thought, why shouldn’t I try my luck?’’

21-year-old Brilyant, who has now played for Keshle FC, Xırdalan City, and Baku Juniors, has her mother’s support. “When I first heard about it, I had a feeling of fear that football is not for girls and how the people in the village would comment on this. But when I saw my daughter’s interest in football, I decided not to hinder her because she also has dreams,” says Brilyant’s mother, Nümune Süleymanova.

Baku Juniors’ manager Agasef Osmanlı argues that family support is important for girls to be successful in football. “Football is love. Dreams do not differ by gender. Football, like education, is an ongoing process. Parents should invest in their children’s participation in sports.” 

Osmanlı highlights another concern among parents regarding the future prospects for girls after their football careers come to an end. He mentions that steps are already being taken to address this issue by providing football players with coaching practice, thereby preparing them for potential roles as coaches in clubs in the years ahead.

Fahriye Bagirova. Image: courtesy

17-year-old Fahriye Bagirova, who has played football for seven years, started her football journey when her physical education teacher formed a school team. Fahriye, who had no knowledge of football before, now considers it to be an important part of her life. She says that she has not received any negative reaction from her family. “When I told them, they were a little surprised and considered it a temporary enthusiasm,” adds the young football player. Fahriye played for Neftchi FC last year and now plays for Araz Nakhchivan FC.

National team player Mana Mollayeva, who says that the interest in women’s football has increased compared to previous years, has advice for girls who want to be a football player: “If you want with all your heart, no one can stop you. If you really want to become a professional football player, you have to work hard on yourself. Basically, you should pay attention to education, and I recommend to learn a foreign language.”

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