Selling Authoritarianism: Azerbaijan's Atletico Madrid Bonanza

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 5/04/2014 12:30:00 AM
Azeri petrodollars bankroll the mighty Atleti.
Football and authoritarianism have a longstanding history. One of this year's Champions League finalists, Real Madrid, received much favoritism during the reign of Generalisimo Francisco Franco. The obvious attraction with authoritarianism in sport is that these regimes pony up wads of cash without giving a damn about political opposition complaining about human rights and all that goody two shoes stuff. Witness, for instance, Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup despite endless accusations of bidding irregularities--let's see the world's top footballers deal with Middle East hear at the height of summer--and exploitation of migrant workers who are literally dying by the dozens to build the stadiums for that event. 478 Indian workers have died over the past two years, but Qatari authorities call this "normal." Meanwhile, Dubai literally funds European football--see the Pele/Ronaldo Emirates commercial if you haven't already..

The latest energy-rich country to sponsor football to help improve its global image (hopefully) is Azerbaijan. Chronologically speaking, of course, oil was discovered much, much earlier in Azerbaijan than in the Middle East. (Also consult Daniel Yergin's epic history The Prize.) However, its eventual absorption into the Soviet Union ruled out  its commercial presence in the West until the USSR's collapse.

Taking the playbook from the Qataris and Emiratis, Azerbaijan has become a sponsor of world football (read: Europe's top teams) in a really big way. Indeed, they recently hit a gusher with Real Madrid's intercity rivals Atletico Madrid thumping Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich's Chelsea (AKA Chelksi) in the Champions League semifinals to reach the main event in Lisbon. Showing once more that you don't need to go far for IPE-relevant material, from the Associated Press c/o Yahoo:
Atletico Madrid's stunning run to the Champions League final also announced another new player on European football's biggest stages. Atletico's players will walk out to face Real Madrid — and an expected global television audience of 175 million — with "Azerbaijan Land of Fire" on their shirts in Lisbon on May 24. For Azerbaijan, that's a jackpot payoff for a sponsorship deal that's part of a wide-ranging effort by the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet Union republic to become more visible to global football audiences...

Expect to see a lot more of it at future UEFA [European football] matches. From Sept. 7, the name SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) will feature on pitch-side advertising at most 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Europe. Its brand will also appear at all 51 Euro 2016 matches in France after signing up as a top-tier sponsor with UEFA. And Azerbaijan's top aim could be achieved on Sept. 19 if UEFA chooses Baku among 13 host cities for Euro 2020.
The ultimate aim is to rehabilitate Azerbaijan's image and even burnish it via the catchy "Land of Fire" slogan. You see, Azerbaijan has similar problems over using its energy wealth to silence opposition. For starters, try abolishing term limits to possibly make yourself president for life:
Like Qatar before it, greater exposure for Azerbaijan from spending sovereign wealth to project a softer image through football will also bring more scrutiny. The country of 9.5 million people nestling next to the Caspian Sea, bordering Russia and Iran, has long been criticized by human rights and anti-censorship groups. The long-term football project in Azerbaijan was requested by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003 and later abolished term limits.
Sports organizers often crave for predictability, hence the appeal of Azerbaijan like the Middle Easterners:
The sports world's faith in Azerbaijan is not shared by activists alleging restrictions on free speech and elections, plus corruption levels that are among the worst in Europe, according to Transparency International. [Azeri sports commissioner] Mammadov pointed to financial and political stability, suggesting: "I don't see any reasons for some of the people to consider us as a negative."
In case you were wondering, Azerbaijan ranks 127th in the world in the Transparency International corruption index. Just as FC Barcelona claims to be "more than a club," Azerbaijan and Atletico Madrid extending their deal is now being styled "much more than a sponsorship." [They've inspired my next IPE Zone description, "so  much more than a blog."] The Guardian also has a story on the Azeri sponsorship deal that mistakenly classifies Azerbaijan as a noveau riche country.. From the Middle East to the Caspian, it's the same story repeated with a slightly different cast of characters.