Last weekend England beat Norway 0 – 1 in a friendly football match at Oslo. Great Britain beat Norway at Eurovision too, although this was hardly cause for celebration as coming 25th, just a few points above 26th-placed Norway at the very bottom, is really nothing to be proud of. Many admire ’null point’ Norway’s steely determination to achieve dependably low scores in this annual cheesy telefest, but those behind the Great Britain entry probably expected far more. But what what can you expect from a septuagenarian crooner named after an obscure German opera composer?
As we all now know, this year’s Eurovision was held in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. The jury is still out as to whether this ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus geographically belongs to Europe or not but, for the purposes of this competition, Azerbaijan is as much a part of Europe as Norway or France…or even Israel.
I travelled to Baku back in 2000 and returned once more for a brief stay in 2010. In 2000, Baku had seemed quite a threadbare sort of place but by the time of my second visit the Azeri capital had visibly enlarged upwards and outwards to resemble a high-rise building site, with lofty buildings mushrooming near the port like blue glass monoliths. Now there was ferocious traffic too, but I braved this to seek out the Tofiq Bahramov football stadium in the north of the city. The national stadium, which had originally been a contender for the Eurovison 2012 venue, was not easy to reach on foot and necessitated the hazardous crossing of lanes of teeming city traffic. It would seem as if one of the consequences of rapid urban development is to make travel through the city on foot difficult, undesirable and even unwise. Planners seem to assume that, given shopping malls, high-rise offices and a blanket spread of MacDonalds outlets, the hapless pedestrian will happily abandon bipedalism for more appropriate means of locomotion. Clearly, those of us preferring foot power just stand in the way of progress with our unreasonable demands for footpaths, pavements and pedestrian crossings. But I digress.
The England football team’s most glorious moment back in 1966 may well owe a debt to Azerbaijan. The sympathetic ‘Russian linesman’ at the 1966 world cup was actually an Azeri national named Tofiq Bahramov, although at the time Azerbaijan was an autonomous republic within the USSR. It was Bahramov who decided that Geoff Hurst’s extra time shot that bounced off the crossbar had actually crossed the line - a controversial decision that proved to be a vital turning point in the game in England’s favour. The final 4-2 scoreline clinched it. After the game, Bahramov, along with the referee and the other linesman, received a golden whistle for his duties from HM the Queen. We can only presume that he would still have been given it even if England had lost the final.
A statue of Tofiq Bahramov blowing a whistle in refereeing pose stands outside the national stadium that has borne his name since his death in 1993. The statue was unveiled in 2006 when England came to Baku to play Azerbaijan and none less than Geoff Hurst turned up to make a speech at the ceremony; FIFA president Sepp Blatter also attended. Ironically perhaps, the stadium, built in the shape of a ‘C’ to honour Stalin (C = S in the Cyrillic alphabet), was partially constructed by German prisoners during World War II. Bahramov had himself fought against the German army during WWII and on his death bed more or less admitted having a pro-English prejudice at the 1966 final - an apocryphal story tells that when asked why he allowed the goal to stand he simply said, ‘Stalingrad’.