Meet the chief leading Azerbaijan from the ashes

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Every aspect of modern football can be broken down into commodities that are compared, priced and sold on the transfer market – and none more so than youth. The embodiment of hope, it's the thing that drives the beautiful game on, controlling the priorities of our federations, the direction of our clubs, the value of our transfers.

A miracle cure for any situation – whether it be a bright new prospect with the talent to match his extravagant haircut as he helps a country return to its Samba roots, or maybe a bright-eyed coach from Portugal with the fresh ideas to reform a London establishment that’s found itself stuck in backwards ways – it solves predicaments throughout the sport. 

But we’re not here to discuss Neymar or Andre Villas-Boas. Let's talk about international football's youngest chief administrator, Elkhan Mammadov – General Secretary of the Azerbaijani FA.

Appointed in 2007, Elkhan – still only 32 – has spent the past few years working to improve the standard of football in his beloved nation, which nestles on the Caspian Sea to the east of Turkey, but very much looks west to UEFA, where Elkhan has thrived.

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Indeed, the country has always relied upon its relationship with Europe to help drive the game onwards – from football's introduction in 1911 by English workers, through the newly-formed youth leagues and professional clubs, to UEFA investment for next year's U17 Women’s World Cup.

While similar federations in this part of the world may have persisted with egocentric plans to develop the sport by their own means, Elkhan was quick to establish strong bonds with UEFA. Leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind, he swiftly transformed the backwater football wasteland in to a hustling hotbed of action on and off the field with constant support from the European body as well as clubs and charities throughout the West – a far cry from the corrupt game Azerbaijani football had become only a few years prior.

At the turn of the century, Azerbaijani football found itself in the grasp of Ilham Aliyev (the son of the country's then President Heydar Aliyev). Made head of the Azerbaijani National Olympic Committee, the younger Aliyev did little to help the Association of Football Federation of Azerbaijan (AFFA) and football around the country. Fans and players alike turned from the game in favour of Russian and Iranian alternatives.

Azerbaijani football hit rock bottom when tax police stormed the offices of the AFFA claiming it owed half a million dollars in unpaid taxes. Private cars were seized to pay off debts, the national stadium was shut down, AFFA president Faud Musayev had his visa taken from him, and general secretary Oktai Zeinalov was arrested and charged with tax evasion and sentenced to solitary confinement. 

Things came to a dreadful conclusion in the spring of 2002 when a number of clubs refused to play in the forthcoming season while Musayev remained AFFA president, leading to a lockdown of the sport until the following May and a suspension of the national team from all FIFA and UEFA tournaments.

Many things have changed since then – for a start, in 2003 Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father as the country's President – but one of the most notable improvements has been in the opinion the Azerbaijani people hold for their national sport.

Ilham Aliyev makes a friend...

Where football was once nothing but corrupt, it now stands in its centenary year as a bastion of inspiration for the nation, which is in no small part down to Mammadov – appointed AFFA's General Secretary in 2007.

Earlier this year, UNICEF were brought on board to help promote women’s football with training initiatives and a certain focus on coaching and introducing young women to the sport. Mammadov has been heralded as an inspiration figure for the women’s game and gender equality within a predominantly Islamic state. This was shown through the country's dedication and enthusiasm in holding next year's women's U17 tournament.

Mammadov’s influence and authority is evident in the standard and organisation in every aspect of Azerbaijani football. The country played host to this year's UEFA Group Study Scheme, as 2,000 technical coaches from the continent's 53 associations arrived to discuss the state of grass-roots football within Azerbaijan.

Although the domestic game is yet to reach a level where it can compete at a reasonable level within Europe’s qualification rounds, the league now finally has structure and consistency. Neftchi, from the capital Baku, won the title this year and are considered by most as the largest club within the country. AFFA will hope that Azerbaijani clubs can start to challenge in European competition.

The national sides are certainly improving. In January the senior team reached an all-time highest FIFA ranking of 97, and in May the U17s beat Ukraine 5-4 on penalties to win the recent President’s Cup in Kazakhstan.

With average league attendances growing to just over two thousand spectators per match, the sport is evidently enjoying a much needed period of prosperity. Whether or not this rise can continue, and just how far Azerbaijani football can go, will only be answered with time and continued effort. Fortunately for Azerbaijan and its young leader Elkhan Mammadov, they have both in abundance.