Long-distance love affair over for the Carlos Alberto reign

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The Independent Football

The good news for Azerbaijani football is that at least this year they have some sort of league programme. The bad news is that as their coach lives 12,000 miles away, he doesn't see any of it.

That at least is the story as told in Baku, where Carlos Alberto's honeymoon is regarded as being well and truly over. The message, though, seems yet to have reached Brazil, where the 1970 World Cup-winning captain still waxes lyrical about being presented with a golden sword after the 3-2 victory over Kazakhstan last April. "They love me," he says. "I go out in the streets and they hug me."

Perhaps they did back in the heady days when they were beating Uzbekistan, drawing 2-2 away to Latvia and taking a World Cup qualifying point against Wales, but after seven games without a goal the mood has turned. So strong is the feeling that he is out of touch with the league that Rasim Kara, the Turkish coach of Khazar Lenkoran, has accused him of picking the team "by remote control".

When, two months after replacing the autocratic and unpopular Fuad Musaev as president of the Azerbaijani Football Federation, Ramiz Mirzoev appointed Carlos Alberto, it seemed to herald a new dawn for Azerbaijani football. The campaign to oust Musaev had led to the league being suspended for 13 months, but as it began to function again, sponsors, encouraged by tax breaks negotiated by Mirzoev, rushed to get involved. As Rashad Sadygov smacked in a 40-yard free-kick to earn a draw against Wales in September, there were those who predicted a golden age.

Four days later in Vienna, Mirzoev and Dmitri Kramarenko, Azerbaijan's most experienced goalkeeper, argued over bonuses in the dressing room minutes before their World Cup qualifier against Austria kicked off. The result was a performance notably lacking in the verve Carlos Alberto had brought to the side. Kramarenko, not for the first time, quit the national side (he has since returned), and by the time of the double-header against Northern Ireland and England, Carlos Alberto had fallen out with Zaur Tagizade, a talented but erratic playmaker.

Other regulars such as Mahmud Gurbanov, Tarlan Akhmedov and Samir Aliyev have publicly criticised the coach, as they have found their places under threat from the younger players Carlos Alberto seems intent on promoting. The problem, perhaps, is one of mentality. Azerbaijan is a nation that likes its football attacking, and, paradoxical as it may seem for a Brazilian, Carlos Alberto is just too defensive for their tastes. Almost all the Azerbaijanis who represented the USSR - the likes of Alekper Mamedov, Anatoly Banishevsky and Igor Ponomarev - were gifted technicians, exactly the kind of player Carlos Alberto has discarded in adopting a 4-5-1 formation.

Where Carlos Alberto sees improvement in the statistic of only four goals conceded in the six games since Vienna, in Baku it is the blank goals-for column that dominates. It hardly helps that the veteran Gurban Gurbanov, Azerbaijan's leading international goalscorer, is just returning after a four-month absence with a back injury, or that Zaur Ramazanov, the top scorer in the league this season, is suspended after attacking a linesman in February.

"Believe me, it makes my head ache," Carlos Alberto says. "Our players have a problem switching quickly from defence to attack, but if you'd seen our matches against Trinidad and Tobago, you'd be convinced of our ability to create chances. The problem is taking them."

That tour in January, though, finished in two defeats, and few saw much encouragement in a subsequent goalless draw against Moldova. Off the field, too, things have taken a turn for the worse. Safa, the club beloved of Musaev, have resigned because of financial problems, while allegations of match-fixing have resurfaced, leading Mubariz Mansimov, the owner of Khazar Lenkoran and the biggest investor in the nation's game, to threaten to withdraw his club.

"Mirzoev is lazy," Iskender Javadov, one of the legends of Azerbaijani football, said last week in calling for his resignation. "He believes he has done a great thing in appointing Carlos Alberto, but it is only self-promotion. They spoke of qualifying for the World Cup, but now only fools can dream of it."