The FIFA World Cup 2018 will be remembered for many reasons, not least the impressive performance of Croatia. With a population of just over four million people, Croatia has demonstrated what is possible for nations without the resources or extensive talent pool available to the traditional powerhouses of international football.
As president of Gabala FK in Azerbaijan, the World Cup has served to reemphasise the importance of investing and supporting the development of football domestically. The divergence in the fortunes of Western and Eastern European footballing nations has been universally recognised as damaging to the sport. Both the international and club sides of Eastern Europe have experienced a significant downturn in their fortunes. If we are to disrupt the status quo of international football, increased levels of investment specifically targeted at the next generation of players is urgently required.
The dominance of Western European football is only a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout the 1990s, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia would qualify for international tournaments and compete with England, France, Germany, and other leading nations. Footballing legends were drawn from both sides of the Iron Curtain, as national teams became the pride of communist countries.
Club sides were also successful. Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade, and Dinamo Tblisi recorded historic wins over elite teams, earning themselves a place at the top table of European football for several decades. It was during this period that players were given all the necessary conditions to succeed. As borders were closed, the brightest stars were unable to leave their homeland and experience the financial benefits of playing abroad. Undoubtedly some were unhappy, however this system produced highly competitive teams and encouraged the development of the next generation of home-grown talent.
However, the fall of the Soviet Union, decreasing state investment in sport, and the dawn of an era in which footballing success is determined by financial capabilities, has meant that the gap between Western and Eastern football seems wider than ever before.
Even the very best teams from Turkey and Russia are unable to compete with German, French and English clubs. The richest teams from the East are attempting to follow the example of the most powerful clubs from Western Europe, but they simply can’t compete with the financial power of those from the other side of the continent. This strategy is failing. Not only are club sides not challenging, but the national teams from Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere are no longer qualifying for international tournaments.
It is for this reason that my club, Gabala FK, has taken a different approach to bridging the talent gap. Gabala is now recognised as the second most successful side in Azerbaijan, competing both domestically and in the Europa League, the second tier of European club competition.
Our ambition at Gabala is to develop the next generation of Azerbaijani players, capable of not only delivering success for the club but also for the national team. Since becoming president we have made significant progress, establishing the very first, and only footballing academy in the country and bringing in coaches from elite European teams to train our youth players. We now have the privilege of providing forty percent of the players that represent Azerbaijan at U19s level and aim to increase that percentage in the future. It is only through investing in infrastructure and coaching at youth-level that we will see an improvement in the standard of Azerbaijani football.
Gabala’s success over recent years therefore serves as an important example of what is possible when you concentrate on youth development. In Romania, a once great footballing nation, young players are forced to travel to England or France to progress their careers due to the absence of academies. Instead of closing youth academies, as many previously successful clubs have done in favour of signing ready-made foreign players, teams should be focusing on the development of talent.
The passion, identity, and support of national teams and clubs throughout the region remains strong, despite the lack of success over recent decades. Croatia has demonstrated what is possible to achieve on the global stage, and it is the duty of football club owners and national football associations to harness the true potential of the region once more. The gap between East and West is significant, but not insurmountable with the correct investment, coaching, and opportunities. We can dare to dream that teams from the East can again sit at the top table of European football.