When investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova began covering the family fortune of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev – including her daughter’s control over the construction company that built a â¬ 115million Eurovision auditorium where Jedward spent a humid night in 2012 – someone broke into her apartment and set up cameras.
Whereas the state-owned telephone company came to connect the line for devices that recorded a sex tape of Ismayilova and her boyfriend, which was ultimately posted online when she refused to be blackmailed, l he story of a Ballybrack boy stranded in Baku seems tame in comparison. .
But in 2009, life at NeftÃ§i PFK became so intimidating that Joe Kendrick’s wife Laura called Fifa. Seconds after filing a high-profile complaint, the phone rang in their apartment as the young couple and little girl Lana were immersed in a scene from The Lives of Others.
“He was someone in broken English who said ‘you have to leave the country’ and ‘don’t make phone calls like that anymore’,” Kendrick said.
Just two months after the start of a two-year contract, the Dubliner had been repeatedly told to leave Baku by NeftÃ§i officials. Bullying has become the norm. A ride home after training cost $ 300 for a broken tail light. Noting that the light was good, the policeman broke it in front of their eyes. Pay the bribe or see what happens.
âWe couldn’t go out at night because people would follow us. “
The former Irish Under-21 left-back cannot prove he was being followed. He was told it was likely. They therefore stayed as a precaution.
“It was horrible,” Kendrick said from his home near Newcastle where he currently manages Prudhoe FC. “Just awful.”
Nowhere to go
Openly unwanted by the club from the moment German coach Hans-JÃ¼rgen Gede was sacked shortly after his arrival, the 26-year-old had nowhere to go, having uprooted his young family from Drogheda in Azerbaijan .
Kendrick claims new manager Boyukaga Aghayev, who remains a prominent figure on the local club scene, strongly suggested that he leave without pay before clearly expressing his displeasure to Azeri players when Kendrick refused.
Zaur Tagizade, Qarabag’s current assistant coach, did he hit you in the face?
âYes,â Kendrick replied. âI was attacked by him in training. He was basically told to attack me and hurt me.
Even after the alleged assault, it became an impossible situation as leaving mid-season would render his contract null and void. He therefore widened, trained with the youth team and initiated legal proceedings with Fifa via a German lawyer.
It was the experience of the only Irish professional footballer to have tasted life in Baku. The same oil-rich city in a poverty-stricken country where Ireland sets out in search of its first competitive victory under Stephen Kenny.
To understand how Kendrick ended up with The Neftciler (“the oil workers”), we take a dusty road familiar to most Irish teenagers who join English clubs.
Four years at Newcastle United ended with a move to 1860 Munich only for a foot injury spoiling any chance of a Bundesliga career. So began his descent into the lower leagues in England before Drogheda United gave him a fleeting taste of Champions League football against Dynamo Kiev.
âAt the same time the club went into review so I started scratching,â Kendrick said. âWe had just had our baby girl, Lana. I loved Drogheda. We had a very good team, we loved the fans, we played good football under the direction of Paul Doolin, who was the manager who got the best of me.
âThen we went bankrupt. “
Enter Dutch agent Rob Groener with a bizarre but lucrative opportunity.
âBaku? I had to look on the map. They had watched the Kiev game and seen a few Drogheda players, so some of us went to take a look around the place, see if we like it. We went there – John Tombouras, Adam Hughes and Eamon Zayed as well – for a week of training.
Kendrick and Tombouras have decided to stay.
âThe coach was German (Gede) and I speak German because I spent a year playing there, so we got along really well. And former Dutch international Rob Reekers was the deputy manager. Two really good guys.
âIt’s hard to explain what happened after that first week. I signed a two year contract and went back to Ireland to tidy up the house, say goodbye, but when we went back to Azerbaijan it was a different story.
“I had three or four offers on the table from English clubs but financially it was a good offer. It was the main one.”
“We don’t want you”
When Gede left, the walls started to close.
âThey go through coaches every year. There was a massive change right away – you have to leave the club, they said, you have to leave the country, we don’t want you anymore.
Does everything tell you to your face?
âWhen you went to get your salary, they took money from it. They would fine me for missing practice after giving me the wrong place. ‘I did nothing wrong!’ Well, we fined you.
Who were you dealing with?
“An Azeri trainer [Aghayev] took over and he basically said – you’re obviously a good player, we love you, but because of the contract you signed, we want to get rid of you. By the way, we’re going to make your life horrible for the foreseeable future. “
So they tried to intimidate you into quitting?
âYes, bullying. In training, they encouraged the Azeri players to hurt us. It wasn’t just me. It was also John and other foreign players at the club.
Contacted by The Irish Times, John Tambouras confirmed that the duo had lived a “chaotic period” in NeftÃ§i. NeftÃ§i dispatched six foreign players ahead of the 2009/10 season, including Kendrick and Tambouras, but they signed on five new foreigners, including Uruguayan striker Walter Guglielmone – who is Edinson Cavani’s brother and current agent – but he also had left the following summer.
After nine months, they simply terminated Kendrick’s contract.
âI had already started legal proceedings with the resolution chamber of Fifa. Fifa decided the club was in breach of contract, so John and I eventually got paid, but it was horrible.
The presence of Reekers, capped by the Netherlands just after Euro 88, ensured the proximity of some professional contacts.
âFortunately, the manager was sacked, but not the assistant manager. (Reekers) got banned from the youth squad along with me and John. He wasn’t coaching, it was the same situation, they didn’t want to pay him. They do it every year when the manager leaves, they tend to say “Okay, let’s get rid of his players now”. They have had a lot of cases against them. When I spoke to the guys from Fifa, they told me “we know them very well”.
Even his departure was fraught with pitfalls.
âI feared for my safety. When we went through the airport on our way out, they searched our bags and tried to charge us thousands of pounds to leave the country.
âYou wouldn’t believe it. Back then you were young and a little stupid but now, come to think of it, it was absolute hell.
Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while his father Heydar Aliyev headed the KGB branch in the region and in 1982 became the first Azerbaijani promoted to the Soviet Politburo.
âIt’s an absolute dictatorship,â Kendrick said. âThere are no human rights. They might claim so, but there isn’t. It is a dictatorship of the worst kind.
Amnesty International and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists give weight to his opinion. In 2013, CNBC reported that the Central Election Commission accidentally announced that President Aliyev had garnered 73% of the vote before the polling stations opened.
âPeople are afraid to say anything. There are pictures everywhere of the guy who runs the country.
In 2019, Aliyev gave Boyukagha Aghayev the title of Honored Master of Sports.
âThanks to the international community, the oil workers, we have made some very good friends,â Kendrick said. âBut it was very, very corrupt. A truly dangerous place. Everything is bribes which is a shame as there were some really good Azeris we met but they always take because they got nothing.
Over the past decade, several media have presented Baku as the ‘new Dubai’ for wealthy tourists, while sporting events such as Formula 1 and Euro 2020 have a broader reach than recent court rulings. European Human Rights Council condemning the smear campaign and imprisonment. Ismayilova.
“I have friends who are still there – not football friends, (real) friends – and the country is still the same.”