Azerbaijan and much more than just a linesman

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The Independent Football

Whatever happens tonight, Azerbaijan has already played a massive part in the history of English football.

Whatever happens tonight, Azerbaijan has already played a massive part in the history of English football.

Rewind to 1966, when a certain Russian linesman - convinced that Geoff Hurst's shot had crossed the line - all but determined who won the World Cup. Except that Tofik Bakhramov was not Russian at all, but Azeri, and the country's national stadium in Baku bears his name.

The country was still part of the Soviet Union in 1966, which was how the confusion arose. In 1991, it became the first independent republic as the USSR disintegrated.

Bakhramov apart, the country's most famous son is probably the former world chess champion, Gary Kasparov. The "Beast of Baku" recently retired, with the not necessarily wise aim of challenging the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. John Motson will probably conjure up an omen out of the fact that in 1986, Kasparov beat the English challenger Nigel Short in the World Championship final.

Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea, the world's largest lake, which, apart from its strategically crucial oil resources, also provides another source of income: caviar, although declining sturgeon populations means that the industry is in crisis. Azerbaijan was once a stopover on the Great Silk Route, and the country enjoys the distinction of having sunk the world's first oil well, drilled near Baku at the end of the 19th century.

At present, the country is not the safest place to be. In recent years there have been numerous terrorist attacks, while the Azerbaijan-Armenia border, near which the two countries have yet to settle their differences over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, is the site of sporadic dogfights across the border.

Still, for the intrepid traveller there are many captivating sights, including Bronze Age remains, medieval minarets and mosques, and the carpets for which the country is famous. Bond enthusiasts might also want to spend some time there, as it was one of the locations for the 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough.

The World Travel Guide contains another caveat. "Visitors should be warned that going to restaurants is treated less as an opportunity to eat and talk as an occasion for competitive toasting and dancing to loud disco music".