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Azerbaijan target top spot in Solidarity Games VIDEO

Baku, May 11, AZERTAC

Azerbaijan officials said on Thursday that they expect the host nation to finish top of the medals table at the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku.

The Games get underway in the country's capital on the western shore of the Caspian Sea on Friday with the hosts widely expected to go one better than the second place they managed in the European Games medal tally in 2015.

"The Islamic countries are still an unknown quantity in terms of sport and athletics. Our target was third place at the European Games. At these games, our target is first," said Chingiz Huseynzade, the vice-president of the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan surpassed expectations at the inaugural 2015 European Games, which Baku hosted, notching up 21 gold medals, with only powerhouse Russia - who won 79 golds - beating them.

But Huseynzade warned that plenty of improvement was needed in the country if Azerbaijan athletes are to become a global force in sports.

"We need to develop sport further in Azerbaijan. We need to engage coaches and athletes and get participation levels up," added Huseynzade at a conference in Baku.

The Solidarity Games suffered a late blow after three countries - Libya, Kuwait and Sudan - withdrew from the event reducing the number of participating nations from the maximum 57 to 54.

Azerbaijan's Minister for Youth and Sports, Azad Rahimov, expressed his disappointment at the late withdrawals but preferred to focus on the excitement on the eve of Friday's Opening Ceremony at the Baku National Stadium.

"We made arrangements for all athletes from all countries to be accommodated at a proper level. We are very disappointed that three countries have decided to pull out, but we respect their decision."

"We are very excited. Baku is ready," added Rahimov.

Despite the Games not yet officially beginning, some competitions have already got underway with handball and football kicking off earlier this week.

Sparse crowds have been evident in both sports despite officials claiming that tickets were close to selling out.

Football is a hugely popular sport in Azerbaijan, but the Azeris' tournament opener against Cameroon, which ended in a 0-0 draw, could only generate a meagre attendance at the Bayil Arena in the capital.

"There are loads of football matches so perhaps people decided not to go to the first one," explained Rahimov. "Crowds have since started to improve," he added.

Forty-six of the 54 participating countries have now arrived in Baku with officials expecting the other eight teams to check into the athletes' village in the next 24 hours.

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