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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soccer and Politics Fused

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- I woke up on Monday morning to the sound of Gulya, our enormous, rosy-cheeked neighbor, hitting something very hard with a stick. To my relief, she wasn't venting her anger on the postman but on seven mattresses, lined up along the pavement.

It's a sure sign that winter is on its way when Azeris empty the woolly contents of their sleeping mats on to sheets of tarpaulin and attack them with sticks.

"The trick is to get rid of the dust and beat some air back into the wool so it's more comfortable to sleep on," Gulya explained as she gave her mattress insides a good thrashing.

All the same, I can't really complain about it being cold. I've just returned from Moscow, where my sturdiest winter coat in Azerbaijan didn't even stand up to the first flurry of snow.

I was there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Moscow Times -- a rowdy affair in a pub on Ulitsa Petrovka. Former editors jostled for space on a packed dance floor and the drivers ate all the food. Some things never change.

I almost didn't make it to Moscow. Boarding the Siberian Airlines plane at Baku airport, my husband noticed one of the pilots lugging two carrier bags of beer into the cockpit. Then, as we came in to land, a window near the front of the plane started to smoke.

"I think there might be something wrong with this window," the man sitting beside it told a stewardess.

"Don't worry, it always does that," she said. "Just hold the safety instructions card against it. That usually does the trick."

Weary after two Moscow Times shindigs, on Saturday evening we settled down to watch the Russian soccer team take on the Georgians at Tbilisi's Lokomotiv Stadium.

It promised to be an exciting game, particularly as President Vladimir Putin threatened to start a war in Georgia last month because of all the Chechen separatists the Georgians are supposed to be sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge.

Halfway through the match all the lights went off in the stadium and the game was canceled. Georgian fans reportedly pelted the Russian team with stones as they left under police escort.

Meanwhile, Ilham Aliyev, the Azeri president's son, said Azerbaijan's soccer team has brought shame on the nation by losing 3-0 to Finland.

"That wasn't soccer they were playing, it was a different game entirely," he said, advising the team to pull out of international matches altogether until it stops disgracing the country.

Whoever said soccer had nothing to do with politics should take a trip to the Caucasus. And they can beat a few mattresses while they're at it.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.