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Why beach soccer is a 'big deal' in Azerbaijan

Despite never coming close to qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship, Azerbaijan will be a co-host of Euro 2020.

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    Azeri youths walk on the shore of the Caspian sea in Baku, Azerbaijan June 18, 2015.
    Stoyan Nenov/REUTERS
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It's safe to say Azerbaijan isn't on the radar of most soccer fans. The oil-rich former Soviet outpost knows, which is why it's trying to spend its way to prominence.

Despite never coming close to qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship, Azerbaijan will be a co-host of Euro 2020.

The big draw for UEFA is the new 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium in the capital Baku, which opened this month at a time when tight budgets have made many European countries wary of funding grandiose new national stadiums.

In preparation for Euro 2020, Azerbaijan is keen to develop soccer by any means possible. It has poured oil funds into its previously crumbling domestic league, with some success. Neftci Baku, sponsored by state oil company SOCAR, reached the Europa League group stage for the first time in 2012-13, earning a creditable 2-2 draw with Inter Milan.

SOCAR has also become a major UEFA sponsor for Euro 2016, while Azerbaijan has hired charismatic former Croatia winger Robert Prosinecki as national coach, and is hosting beach soccer at this month's inaugural European Games in Baku.

The home team is hoping to build Azerbaijan's soccer reputation not on grass, but on sand.

"In Azerbaijan, some people say soccer is in poor condition and so on. Of course, no, not at all," Emin Kurdov, goalkeeper and captain of the Azeri beach soccer team, says through a translator.

"Soccer is developing. It's a gradual development, as with beach soccer's development, and we will try to prove it with our performance."

The thought of helping the country become well known in time for Euro 2020 will drive Azerbaijan's beach boys onwards, Kurdov says.

"It's a happy fact that Azerbaijan is going to host such honorable matches," he says. "At the same time, it's a stimulus for all of us."

However, two big obstacles stand in Azerbaijan's way to soccer prominence.

Firstly, with 13 co-hosts for Euro 2020, none will qualify automatically, so it is far from guaranteed that the host nation will play at its Olympic Stadium in 2020. In qualifying for European 2016, Azerbaijan is already six points off the playoff places with only one win, against Malta.

The arrival of UEFA's new Nations League in 2018, with teams split into divisions by world ranking, could make matters easier for Azerbaijan as it aims for 2020, however.

The second obstacle is publicity. Beach soccer is a marginal event, and the world's spotlight on the European Games has been dim. The Women's World Cup in Canada has overshadowed the games in several major markets.

Baku's beach soccer is being keenly watched by top officials in beach soccer, which suffered a setback when its attempts to make the program for next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were rebuffed. The European Games is beach soccer's debut at a major multi-sport event, at a 1,500-seat temporary venue under the baking Azerbaijani sun, which is expected to drive temperatures as high as 38 degrees (101 F).

Since bringing beach soccer under FIFA's auspices a decade ago, "joining the Baku Europeans is the best news that we have been able to bring to the sport," says Joan Cusco, FIFA official and vice president of promoter Beach Soccer Worldwide.

He says it could be a springboard for another attempt at Olympic recognition, possibly the 2020 Tokyo Games.

In the meantime, beach soccer in Azerbaijan is a big deal.

"The inclusion of beach soccer into the European Games is another success that we are all proud of, and here we have to mention the efforts of the national team, which is a part of this competition," captain Kurdov says. "I would say we made a record in history."

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