Baku aims for Olympics buzz with Euro 2020 bid
DUBROVNIK, Croatia (AP)
Azerbaijan hopes that bidding to stage 2020 European Championship matches will promote Baku after it was twice rejected by the IOC as a candidate city for the Olympics.
UEFA said Friday that Azerbaijan is among 32 member countries aiming to be part of the 13-nation Euro 2020 hosting project.
Elkhan Mammadov, the Azerbaijan Football Association secretary general, told The Associated Press that a successful Euro 2020 bid could build momentum for a third shot at a chance to host the Olympics.
''I believe yes,'' Mammadov said in an interview on the sidelines of a four-day UEFA gathering. ''It will bring some guarantees. It will destroy some doubts in some people.''
UEFA will choose 13 host cities next September. One will host the final and semifinals, and the other 12 will each stage three group matches and one knockout match at the 24-team tournament.
Azerbaijan is proposing the 68,000-capacity Baku Olympic Stadium, which will be completed ahead of hosting events at the first European Games in 2015.
The stadium was the intended center of the 2016 and 2020 Olympics but Baku failed to reach the IOC's candidates shortlist.
Using revenue from its oil and gas reserves, Azerbaijan has been an increasingly active bidder for sports events, and state oil company SOCAR is a main sponsor of the football body.
Azerbaijan state president Ilham Aliyev has already signed off on full government support for the Euro 2020 project, Mammadov said.
Aliyev also leads his nation's Olympic committee and is expected to propose Baku for hosting the 2024 Summer Games.
''These kinds of events are breeding more trust,'' said Mammadov, who helped organize the women's Under-17 World Cup last year.
For the FIFA event, Azerbaijan brought Jennifer Lopez to headline the opening ceremony concert and Shakira performed at the final.
The success of Azerbaijan's Euro 2020 bid could depend on having a nearby partner country to co-host one of the six groups. Neighboring Turkey is bidding only for the final match package.
UEFA President Michel Platini has pledged to limit travel time for fans attending the tournament.
''We have to see in which regional zone we are. We have to see what will be the priority,'' Mammadov said.
The Azerbaijan official said he expected fans to come to Baku from neighboring UEFA countries Russia, Georgia, Turkey and Kazakhstan, plus Iran and Turkmenistan from Asia.
''It was a very good decision by the UEFA president to bring football to the fans and not the fans to football,'' Mammadov said, adding that Azerbaijan would ''open our borders'' through football.
In November, the national team led by former Germany coach Berti Vogts will go to Kyrgyzstan for the first international friendly played in Bishkek in eight years.
''Can you imagine how hungry and angry the fans have been?'' Mammadov said. ''We have made a commitment of going to travel there and play a match. We keep our word.''
A football accord with neighboring Armenia is more elusive. Six years ago, the countries refused to play each other in Euro 2008 qualifying matches because of a dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
UEFA and FIFA have since kept the countries apart in each qualifying program, as they do also with Russia and Georgia, and Spain and Gibraltar.
''It is impossible to play a match,'' Mammadov said. ''It is not a good sign that we have more and more countries split. But today we have no relationship in any sectors of different levels with Armenia.''
Still, Azerbaijan will continue to build its football relations Saturday when Platini visits the country to open a new technical center close to Baku.