“Enjoy Together”: Armenia, Turkey opening WC qualification amid ‘football diplomacy’ between two nations

Armenia is entertaining Turkey this weekend in a World Cup qualifier that international bookmakers say is more likely to be won by the visitors.

But the political leaderships in both countries divided by a closed border and a backlog of unresolved problems hope there will be no losers at least beyond the football ground as a result of the unprecedented event.

The Saturday (Sept. 6) match at Hrazdan Stadium beginning at 9.00 pm Yerevan time will become the first-ever football encounter at senior level between the two neighboring nations that share a history of troubled relations and no diplomatic ties at present.

The off-the-pitch significance of the game has been stressed ever since the two nations were drawn late last year in the same qualifying group (also including Spain, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Estonia) of the European zone for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The perception was intensified after the Armenian leader took advantage of the upcoming game to invite his Turkish counterpart to “enjoy together the football match” in Yerevan.

“Thus we will announce a new symbolic start in our relations,” Serzh Sargsyan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July, repeating his earlier invitation to Abdullah Gul to visit the Armenian capital.

In a further display of good will, official Yerevan made a decision in mid-August to suspend unilaterally its visa regime with Turkey on September 1-6 to facilitate the arrival of Turkish football fans in Armenia.

“The decision was taken to enable citizens of the Turkish Republic to attend the September 6 game between the football teams of Armenia and Turkey to be played in Yerevan,” a government statement said.

Hrazdan Stadium, the largest football arena in Yerevan, can accommodate up to 55,000 spectators after recent reconstruction. However, few Turkish fans, if any, are expected to arrive in Yerevan for the game in accordance with the Turkish football federation’s formal position to discourage citizens from traveling to Armenia to prevent possible incident. The Turkish side wants Armenian counterparts to do the same when Armenia will be a visiting side in Istanbul next fall.

Under FIFA regulations, the federation of the visiting team is entitled to 5 percent of tickets available for the match. But the Turkish Football Federation had officially requested only 130 tickets, including 115 for members of the Turkish delegation and another 15 tickets for VIPs.

Both the Armenian government and the country’s football federation have said security measures will be in place to prevent incidents during the match and beyond. The federation has called on football fans to show maximum respect for the visiting team and to refrain from shouting insults and carrying hate banners.

At least one political party in Armenia, Dashnaktsutyun, has vowed to stage protests against the Turkish president’s arrival, but its leaders have repeatedly said their actions would be staged in ‘a civilized manner’.

The Armenian side has also made extra efforts to revamp the hitherto disused Armenian section of the railway connecting Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri to Turkey’s Kars in case there is a demand for it. Since Turkey made a decision in 1993 to close the border with its eastern neighbor, Armenia has relied heavily on Georgia as a transit country for the bulk of its foreign trade. The recent war in Georgia, however, has disrupted regular railway and motorway traffic via Georgian territory, resulting in shortages of fuel and occasionally of other basic products on the Armenian market.

Football-wise, Armenia’s senior team on Saturday will be hoping to repeat the heroics of the Under-21 team that beat their Turkish coevals with a stunning late comeback at Hrazdan about two weeks before.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Armenian Football Federation President Ruben Hayrapetyan emphasized that he had set the task before the national team to achieve a victory in the upcoming qualifier against Turkey and repeated that the general task for Armenia in the opening campaign is to achieve qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals.

To recap, in a 2009 European Championship qualifier on August 20 Varuzhan Sukiasyan’s charges were a goal down until the 89th minute when they first managed to equalize and then snatch a spectacular victory in stoppage time.

Armenia’s U-21 team will play the return match in Turkey on Tuesday, September 9. And Armenia’s main team will travel to Spain to play their second qualifier this season against the reigning European champions on Wednesday, September 10.

Chess

Armenia’s number one in chess is participating in the Chess Grand Slam Final in Bilbao, Spain, from September 2 to 13. Grandmaster Levon Aronyan’s opponents in the double round tournament are GMs Vishy Anand (India), Vasiliy Ivanchuk (Ukraine), Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) and Teimur Rajabov (Azerbaijan).
The tournament in Spain is Aronyan’s first competition since his signal victory in the Second FIDE Grand Prix Tournament in Sochi, Russia, in the middle of August.

In the tournament that had brought together 14 leading grandmasters of the world, Aronyan finished in the clear first place with 8.5 points -- half a point and a full point ahead of Azerbaijan’s Rajabov and China’s Wang Yue, who placed second and third, respectively.

Paralympics

The Summer Paralympics for disabled sportsmen start in Beijing, China, on September 6. Armenia’s sole representative at the Games will be 22-year-old Greta Khndzrtsyan from Gyumri (in weightlifting). ArmeniaNow profiled Greta after the 2006 Winter Paralympics. Click here http://www.armenianow.com/?action=viewArticle&AID=1479&lng=eng to read the article about this athlete.