Say what you like about David James, but at least he turns up. Dmitri Kramarenko, Azerbaijan's first-choice goalkeeper, has made a career-long habit of absenteeism, but none of his withdrawals has been so sorely felt as the decision he took last week to boycott the national side until Ramiz Mirzoev is deposed as president of the Azerbaijani Football Federation (Affa).
There had been a sense that under Mirzoev, who replaced the controversial Fuad Musaev last December, Azerbaijani football was finding its feet. He secured the appointment of Carlos Alberto Torres as coach in February, and there was sufficient evidence in last month's draw against Wales to suggest that the Brazilian's talk of building "a great team for a great nation with great support" was not as ludicrous as it seemed.
Something, though, went badly wrong in Vienna four days later. The bite Azerbaijan had shown in Baku was gone, and Austria were comfortable 2-0 winners. Carlos Alberto made vague noises about "making sure what happened in Austria does not happen again", but it was only last week that it emerged that Kramarenko and Mirzoev clashed in the dressing room before kick-off over bonuses for the Wales game. "Don't wait for me to turn up to play," Kramarenko said. "I have quit the national side. I know I am one of the leaders, but for years I have been trying to protect the guys from the craziness that surrounds us and after what happened in Austria I cannot go on. We'll leave in the dressing room exactly what was said, but he [Mirzoev] spoke to me in a rough way, so I have decided I will not play while he is still in charge."
The defender Emin Agaev, Kramarenko's team-mate with the Russian second-division side Baltika Kaliningrad, has withdrawn in sympathy. "We want to sign a contract so our bonuses are clearly defined," he explained. "But Affa have refused to do so, and we will not play until they do." Agaev was only ever in line for a place on the bench, but Kramarenko is a significant loss, leaving Carlos Alberto to choose between FK Neftchi's Jakhangir Gasanzade or Raul Mekhtiev of the Azerbaijani league leaders FK Karabakh. Neither has much international experience, and so undecided was Carlos Alberto that they played a half each in a training game against the first-division side Shafa.
The Baltika pair's protest might attract more sympathy if Kramarenko's no-shows weren't such a routine. Nobody has suffered so many late strains, family crises and mysteriously cancelled flights as Kramarenko. In August 2001, puffed by a move to Dinamo Moscow, he rejected a call-up for World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Macedonia, citing the poor standard of Azerbaijani football. A year later, having been persuaded back into the side, he failed to turn up for a Euro 2004 qualifier in Helsinki, claiming that thieves had broken into his car and stolen his passport.
"My job is to invite the players," Carlos Alberto said. "This time he has refused, so we will just have to work with the others." He may sound phlegmatic, but the atmosphere of unrest was intensified when the talented but unpredictable winger Zaur Tagizade, who has been regularly overlooked by Carlos Alberto, pulled out of the squad last week, apparently after an argument with the coach.
Azerbaijan's record goalscorer, Gurban Gurbanov, meanwhile, although he should play, is struggling with a hip injury, and the playmaker Anatoly Ponamorev, who has a twisted knee, is unlikely to manage more than a half.
For Mirzoev, the chaos is particularly dispiriting. It was only last season that the Azerbaijani league reconvened after a year-long hiatus that followed the withdrawal of 11 clubs - including Neftchi, of whom he was then president - in protest at alleged Affa corruption and Musaev's "favouritism" towards FK Shamkir. For all the problems, though, Carlos Alberto remains optimistic. "In the present world," he said, "any team can beat anybody else. They're not invincible, so why shouldn't we beat England?" A month ago his words might have been spoken in expectation; now, there is only hope, and not much of that.Reuse content