By Olzhas Auyezov and Nailia Bagirova
BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan's soccer champions for the last seven years, Qarabag FC have hoped for a different sort of victory since war returned to the region they were forced to flee nearly 30 years ago.
The exiled club, known as "The Barcelona of the Caucasus", have ambitions to return to Aghdam, a city near the front line of a conflict with ethnic Armenian forces over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Qarabag's sometimes bellicose attitude has earned them support across Azerbaijan but courted controversy elsewhere. The club were reprimanded by UEFA for a military salute during a match in Poland last month.
"We just wanted to support the Azeri people at such a tough moment, support the Azeri soldiers liberating our lands," Maksim Medvedev, Qarabag's 31-year-old captain, told Reuters at the club's base on the edge of the capital Baku.
The mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions, including Aghdam, are internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians who say it is part of their historic homeland.
The latest fighting began on Sept. 27 and is the worst in the South Caucasus region in more than 25 years. The death toll has surpassed 1,000 and could be much higher.
Qarabag - the name means Karabakh, transliterated from Azeri - left Aghdam in 1993, along with most of the ethnic Azeri population. About 30,000 people were killed in the 1991-94 war, including Qarabag's then head coach Allahverdi Bagirov.
Originally formed in 1951 as Mehsul FC, the club had several names before adopting the current one. Their crest features two rearing Karabakh horses, a breed considered nearly extinct which gives Qarabag their other nickname -- the Horsemen.
The club, who play in black and white, are owned by Azersun Holding, a company founded by tycoon Abdolbari Gozal which is Azerbaijan's largest food producer and exporter.
"I hope, God willing, the day will come when Qarabag FC will officially be based in its native land," said Medvedev, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Baku. He speaks both languages and is also captain of Azerbaijan's national team.
"You wouldn't believe how many people would come to the games and how enthusiastic they were," he said, referring to matches played in Aghdam. "People would climb on the fences and hang, or sit there throughout the whole match."
No spectators are permitted at Qarabag's home matches in Baku's Azersun Arena due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inside the stadium, on a wall decorated with flags presented by past opponents, hangs a memento of another former Soviet club driven by war from their home - Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk who have played their home matches elsewhere since 2014.
At the club's training ground, players run in the shadow of giant billboards proclaiming the latest Twitter comments by President Ilham Aliyev - lists of districts lost and reclaimed.
This has not gone unnoticed in Yerevan.
The Football Federation of Armenia on Saturday called for Qarabag to be expelled from European competition for comments, since deleted, made by a club official on social media.
The federation said in a statement it had made numerous complaints to UEFA and FIFA about "the belligerent publications, militaristic behaviour and anti-Armenian posts of various representatives of Azerbaijani football".
UEFA, European soccer's governing body, has said club and national team matches will not be permitted until further notice in Azerbaijan or Armenia because of the conflict.
Qarabag, who played their Europa League group home match in Istanbul on Thursday, a 3-1 defeat by Spanish club Villarreal, have dominated the domestic league recently under head coach Gurban Gurbanov, the Azerbaijan national side's leading all-time goalscorer.
Qarabag's fan base is nationwide, Medvedev said, partly because of their success - they were the first Azeri side to play in the Champions League group stages - but also because they represent a region Azerbaijan has long yearned to reclaim.
"Aghdam is our town, an Azeri town, and Qarabag must return home," said Gamid Gamidov, a Baku resident and supporter of the club. "Wherever it is based, I am sure the whole of Azerbaijan will continue to support it."
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Editing by Robin Paxton and Ed Osmond)