While Atlético Madrid’s players prepare to face off against crosstown rivals Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday, a number of international bodies have slammed Atlético’s sponsor, Azerbaijan, for its harsh authoritarianism.
On Thursday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Azerbaijan the “Land Of Repression,” a play on Azerbaijan’s tourism slogan “Land of Fire,” which appears on Atlético Madrid’s uniforms. It rated Azerbaijan 160 out of 180 in the latest of its annual World Press Freedom Index and charges the international community of ignoring Azerbaijan’s rights record because of its large supply of oil and gas. RSF mocked the sponsorship with its own version of Atlético's jerseys.
Atlético Madrid first signed a sponsorship deal with Azerbaijan back in 2012. The deal went further than a typical sponsorship, and included plans for friendly Atlético-Azerbaijan matches and Atlético-led soccer camps in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital. In a nutshell, the sponsorship was a way for Atlético to access new fans and for Azerbaijan to improve the image and level of soccer in the country. So far the plan has worked.
Atlético hosts this promotional video on their website:
Ironically, Azerbaijan took over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the continent’s presiding human rights council, earlier this month. On May 9, RSF called on the Council of Europe to put pressure on President Ilham Aliev to improve the situation in his country, and it appears the international body has listened. On Friday, the Council of Europe’s parliament issued a statement condemning Azerbaijan’s record.
"In certain areas, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, the situation appears to have deteriorated and this has to be addressed urgently," said Anne Brasseur, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Brasseur went on to support the release of Azeri human-rights activist Ilgar Mammadov, who was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for “organizing mass disturbances” and “resisting the police.” France also condemned the sentencing, saying there was a “lack of respect for the right of defense during this trial.”
So far the European group has no concrete plans to suspend or otherwise reprimand Azerbaijan for its record.
Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar admitted the situation was complicated, but spoke out against press restrictions in the country, saying the U.S. was "deeply disturbed" by the rights situation there. He spoke with Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova on Radio Free Europe:
Much of the criticism is aimed at President Aliyev, who succeeded his father in the position in 2003 and removed term limits to allow him to run indefinitely. Critics say elections haven’t been free or fair since, and that the human-rights situation has deteriorated significantly in the last three years. Reports of voter fraud, stuffed ballot boxes, intimidation, torture, and forced disappearances are rampant.
The team recognizes the delicate relationship it shares with the repressive country, but so far hasn’t faced much pressure to change sponsors. The two agreed earlier this year to extend the Azerbaijan sponsorship through June 2015. Azerbaijan will also host the first-ever European Olympic Committee-sponsored European Games in 2015 in Baku.