Baku, June 12, AZERTAC
Azerbaijan's Rafael Aghayev will carry the hopes of a nation when he competes in the men's kumite -75kg category in the Baku 2015 Karate competition on Saturday (13 June).
The four-time world and nine-time European champion is idolised in Azerbaijan and came back from a year's absence through injury to win at the 2015 European championships in Istanbul in March.
Now he wants to crown that with a European Games title on home soil, saying: "I always expect to win gold medals."
But Aghayev will not have it all his own way, with Italy's Luigi Busa, who won silver at the 2014 world championships, and Germany's Noah Bitsch, who took bronze at the same event, presenting a major challenge.
Azerbaijan will be represented in all the men's Karate events, and other local hopefuls in kumite are Shahin Atamov (+84kg), Niyazi Aliyev (-67kg) and Aykhan Mamayev (-84kg).
The clash of the big men in the +84kg category will pit reigning Serbia's European champion Slobodan Bitevic against the current world champion, Enes Erkan of Turkey.
In women's tournament, the French boast a world no.1 in Nadege Ait Ibrahim (+68kg) and three second-ranked athletes in Alexandra Recchia (-50kg), Emilie Thouy (-55kg) and Lucie Ignance (-61kg).
Recchia's progress has been impressive considering she has been studying for a law degree at the same time.
"I've been running in the mornings, attending school at daytime and doing training in the evenings," she said.
However, in the highly competitive -50kg class, the current European gold medallist Bettina Plank of Austria will be looking to maintain her superiority over Recchia, Turkey's Serap Ozcelik and Germany's Duygu Bugur.
Ozcelik has since risen to no.1 and the Turks won more medals than any of their rivals in the women's kumite in Istanbul, collecting 11 to France's and Spain's nine.
In the men's and women's kata events, Spain are strong favourites, with reigning European champions, Damien Quintero Capdevila and Sandra Sanchez Jaime both featuring.
The Karate competition runs from 13-14 June.
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