“There’s no question about it, this will become one of the most visited places in Europe,” says Alastair Saverimutto in a very matter-of-fact way. “People will come here from across Europe. It’s going to be incredible.”
The place? Gabala, a small, dusty dead-end town a three-hour drive inland from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Gabala is just one of countless forgotten places strewn across the 15 countries that once made up the Soviet Union. There are few jobs here; men while away the afternoons playing backgammon and there’s hardly a proper shop to speak of.
The only time the town has hit the news before this week was in 2007, when Vladimir Putin offered up the Soviet-era radar base on its outskirts as an alternative to US plans for a missile defence shield in Central Europe.
But this week plans were announced to put Gabala firmly on the international map. The lynchpin of this grand scheme is Tony Adams, the former Arsenal and England footballing star player. He was revealed on Wednesday as the new manager of FC Gabala, the small football club in the town, which currently lies sixth in the unglamorous Azerbaijani Premier League. Saverimutto, formerly the CEO of English football club Bournemouth, is the club’s COO.
The football club, which will feature a stunning new stadium, training, conference and hotel complex designed by British firm AFL Architects, is just the start. “There are going to be golf courses, ski resorts, hotels and an international airport. In a few years, this place will be unrecognisable,” says Saverimutto during a tour of the football club this week. We meet at the Kavkaz Resort Hotel, one of the first such projects, a five-star complex where golf buggies shuttle between the luxury cottages, all appearing very incongruous set back from the main town of ramshackle houses and makeshift market stalls.
Azerbaijan is not one of the world’s most transparent countries when it comes to politics and business, to put it mildly. This makes it tricky to write about exactly whose money is being used to fund these grand plans, how this money was earned, and how much of it there is, even though a lot of this information is an open secret among those in the know.
These are the official facts: the President of Gabala is Tale Heydarov, a 25-year-old Azeri who studied at the London School of Economics and with his brother heads up an opaque business conglomerate called United Enterprises International. Heydarov’s father is a powerful minister, and formerly the head of the Azerbaijan Customs Service, a highly influential position in post-Soviet countries. Heydarov’s mother is from Gabala, meaning he has an “emotional attachment” to the place. Finally, Gabala FC is owned by Gilan Holdings, a giant company that will also manage much of the plans for the town’s redevelopment but which is also very opaque – nobody knows who the chairman is, officially at least.
The first part of Project Gabala involves the football club, and Saverimutto says Adams was recruited because he needed “a big name” to help raise the club’s profile. Gabala will invest heavily in its youth academy, and while some foreign players may well be signed, everyone involved with the club is keen to stress that the emphasis will be placed on local players. The idea is to train up a new generation of Azeri talent that will give the country’s national side (which, incidentally, is currently managed by former Germany boss Berti Vogts) a fighting chance of qualifying for major tournaments.
The ultimate goal, certainly for those financially backing the club, is not just to promote Gabala, or football, but also the whole country’s brand. Few people outside the energy industry know much about Azerbaijan, and both Adams and Saverimutto admit that they knew almost nothing of the country before they were offered jobs there. They are keen to change this, however.
“I don’t want to just build a winning team and then go home,” Adams tells me during the tour of Gabala FC’s training facilities. “This is a project to put Azerbaijan on the map.”