Author: Sanan SHAFIZADE
Despite the many years of successful performance at prestigious competitions, including all the Olympic games, Azerbaijani wrestlers are going through a period of decline. Crisis of the national team also became obvious after the last licensed competition for the Tokyo Olympics – a tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria. Unfortunately, it seems Azerbaijani wrestlers are in a knockdown.
The national team represented in Sofia by 13 athletes could secure only 2 licenses for the Tokyo Olympics: one by Rafig Huseynov in Greco-Roman wrestling (77 kg) and Alice Manolova among the women wrestlers (68 kg). This was the last tournament for licences, which left the Azerbaijani wrestlers with only 7 of 18 licences, compared to previous years, when Azerbaijan was usually represented at Olympic games by a large delegation of athletes.
Crisis began in 2019. Performance of our wrestlers two years ago at the world championship in Kazakhstan, where they took only 2 licenses, was heavily criticised. Periodic trips of the head coach of the Azerbaijani freestyle wrestling team Saipulla Absaidov to his homeland instead of taking his students to the competition was a sign of emerging problems. Back in 2019, we urged for serious reforms in the national wrestling team, mentioning that otherwise it could fail the Olympic Games. Then the Azerbaijani Wrestling Federation stated that there would be enough upcoming licensing tournaments to make athletes forget about the previous failures. Now all the licensing competitions are over, yet the failures of the team continue.
In March, Warsaw hosted the European Wrestling Championship. Since there was very little time left before the World Olympic Classification Tournament, coaches gave a chance to the members of the reserve team in many weight categories. But we did not have athletes in some categories at all. In freestyle wrestling, Azerbaijan was represented by 9 athletes, 8 athletes in Greco-Roman style, and only 5 woman athletes. Only four freestyle wrestlers could raise to the podium. First-time participant of the competition Turan Bayramov (70 kg) won a silver medal, while Afgan Hashalov (57 kg), Ali Rahimzade (65 kg) and Osman Nurmagomedov (92 kg) won bronze medals. With 95 points, our team became the fourth best in Europe, only 1 point behind the national team of Georgia. As part of the women's team, Maria Stadnik (50 kg) showed a great performance. Despite her strongest rivals, Stadnik, who had not taken part in any competition for almost two years, celebrated her return with another victory. Thus, Maria became the European champion for the eighth time after defeating all the rivals with a large score.
The national Greco-Roman wrestling team took three medals. The competition was the greatest achievement in Taleh Mammadov’s professional career (63 kg, silver). Eldaniz Azizli (55 kg) became the medallist of the European Championship for the fourth time consecutively, and fifth time in general. In terms of the number of medals, he caught up with his fellow team member Hasan Aliyev, who owns the largest number of awards. Along with Eldaniz, last year's European champion Sanan Suleymanov (77 kg) also won a bronze medal. In total, our wrestlers won 8 medals (1 gold, 2 silver, 5 bronze) at the European Championship. With this result, the national team ranks the 8th in the overall standings.
Maria Stadnik won the only non-licensing gold medal of the tournament. This once again demonstrated the poor state of affairs in other wrestling teams. In fact, our women's team is not among the strongest. Success of the unprecedented phenomenon of the national women's wrestling team, Maria Stadnik, simply overshadows the existing problems of the team. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan does not have team leaders of Stadnik’s level in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Either way, Azerbaijan will be represented at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games by 7 wrestlers only: freestyle athletes Haji Aliyev (65 kg), Hajimurad Hajiyev (74 kg), Sharif Sharifov (97 kg), women's athletes Maria Stadnik (50 kg) and Alice Manolova (68 kg), as well as Greco-Roman wrestlers Rafig Huseynov (77 kg) and Islam Abbasov (87 kg).
At the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Azerbaijan was represented by 14 wrestlers, with the freestyle team competing in full force. As a result, Azerbaijani wrestlers won 9 (!) medals in Rio. But the last performances of our athletes do not seem encouraging.
Pardon impossible to execute
Since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Azerbaijani athletes have won a total of 42 medals, 22 by wrestlers. They also own 4 of the 7 Olympic gold medals of Azerbaijan.
There were a few important factors that worsened the existing situation, the largest one being the pandemic, which seriously affected not only the national wrestlers team but the entire Azerbaijani sport. The lockdown measures introduced last year prevented our wrestlers of appropriate training and joining competitions. The lack of practice also prevented the coaches of realistically assessing the situation. On the other hand, the national wrestling championship was cancelled in 2020, but not in other countries. The national team members could not take part in any internal competition either.
Postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games put an end to the professional careers of some famous members of the national team. Thus, the departure of the winner of the London Olympic Games Toghrul Askerov and the experienced wrestler Jabrail Hasanov weakened the national team.
There was also a periodic replacement of coaches in the national teams of Azerbaijan. In the absence of accomplishments, such changes were obvious. However, parting with a coach short before the Olympic Games is a risky decision. Thus, the head coach of the Greco-Roman wrestling team Shaban Donat was replaced with Alexander Tarakanov. Olympic champion Namig Abdullaev became the head coach of the freestyle wrestling team at the most difficult moment for the team. Unfortunately, his efforts to fix the problems were in vain and he failed to change the situation. On the eve of the Olympic Games, it will not be correct to raise the question of changing the head coach. Undoubtedly, this can negatively affect the national team as a whole.
Now the future of Namig Abdullayev as a coach depends on the three-time world champion Haji Aliyev, Hajimurad Hajiyev and the Olympic champion Sharif Sharifov. We can assume that the result will be positive, if the team wins at least one gold medal.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, Rafig Huseynov and Islam Abbasov, who dropped 12 kg to return to his weight category after seven years, must save the team. Their success may somewhat defend the federation from sharp criticism. We can also expect medals from the representatives of the women's team – Alice Manolova and Maria Stadnik.
Usually, the Azerbaijani wrestlers easily defeat eminent rivals. Now they must be careful not be defeated. After the Tokyo Olympics, radical reforms will be inevitable in all three teams. The roster will definitely be updated, and the fate of the coaches and the federation will be decided in due time.