FK Qarabag Agdam is an Azerbaijani football club currently based in the capital Baku, yet longing to return to its home ground in Agdam. During the war with Armenian separatists over Nagorno Karabakh, the Imaret stadium in downtown Agdam remained packed for home matches. In 1993, Karabakh-Armenian forces occupied and destroyed Agdam and it has been a ghost town ever since. The club has become the symbol of hope and pride for over half a million Azerbaijani refugees scattered around Azerbaijan. Sponsored by a Turkish-Azerbaijani holding, it has played in the Europa League several times. In 2009, the team enjoyed an unprecedented international run until it was eventually knocked out by FC Twente (The Netherlands).
The Armenian football team FK Karabakh Stepanakert from Nagorno Karabakh, meanwhile, is banned from professional football. Due to the lack of international recognition for the breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, football association FIFA does not recognise teams from the region. As a result, FK Karabakh Stepanakert has been isolated entirely. It has lost all but its local relevance and consequently most of its financial means, a catastrophe for the team that was amongst the strongest in the Azerbaijani zone of Soviet Union football.
The South Caucasus is a highly volatile region encompassing three culturally, religiously and linguistically different states. Historically, the region has been subjected to geopolitical power play by the world’s major powers. The ‘armed peace’ in Nagorno Karabakh is the greatest threat to stability in this part of the world and potentially beyond. Sooner rather than later the conflict will be back on the international agenda, as economic interests and disparities in the region have increased tremendously in recent years. While Azerbaijan grows richer with every oil shipment, Armenia sinks further into economic isolation.
The human tragedy of this situation is revealed through the eyes of six people, each one connected to the respective football teams - exemplary for the daily lives of players and coaches, fighters and refugees, sons and daughters, wives and widows. The story of the Armenian FK Karabakh Stepanakert counterbalances the story of the Azeri FK Qarabag Agdam. The project will be developed into a book and a travelling exhibition.
Dirk-Jan Visser (1978) is an independent documentary photographer. In 2005 he published Brave New Kosovo, about a region on the brink of transformation. He was named Dutch Photojournalist of the Year 2007 and received Special Recognition in the POYi World Understanding category for his photo book Zimbabwe Exodus.
Arthur Huizinga (1980) is a freelance journalist and writer. His work on the South Caucasus has appeared in a number of publications, including De Groene Amsterdammer and NRC Handelsblad. His non-fiction novel Nooit een thuiswedstrijd – Een voetbaloorlog in de Kaukasus (Never a home game – A football war in the Caucasus) about FK Qarabag Agdam will be published by Uitgeverij Prometheus in May 2012.