Behind the Curtain

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Behind the Curtain is a book by Jonathon Wilson. It has a chapter on Armenia.

Behind the Curtain : Travels in Easter European Football (excerpt)


When they made the trip to Armenia to face Dinamo Yerevan in September 1949, Dinamo Moscow were on their way to a fifth league title. After thirty-five minutes, though, they found themselves 3–0 down, and, despite pulling one back two minutes before half time, there was still a real possibility of a shock that could have derailed their championship charge. That, clearly, wouldn’t do, so General Blinov, deputy minister of the Ministry of State Security, telephoned the government room at the stadium and ordered the Armenian Minister of the Interior, Comrade Grigoryan, to take measures to ensure victory for Dinamo Moscow. Hearing the conversation, one of the heads of the Sports Committee of the Armenian Republic, an apparatchik whose name survives only as Simonyan, is said to have gone pale and whispered, ‘The people will not understand.’ Grigoryan, though, went to the Yerevan coach, Boris Apukhin, and explained the situation. He responded by replacing one of his experienced defenders with a youth-team player. Even worse, when the teams came out for the second half, a sinister figure in a black coat took up a position behind the Yerevan goal, every now and again hissing ‘Miss!’ when the goalkeeper went to gather a shot. Dinamo Moscow, not surprisingly, came back to win 4–3. Dinamo Yerevan’s next game was away to Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), a trip that necessitated a flight via Moscow. On arrival in the capital the players were thanked by General Blinov, and each given a gift of 2,500 roubles. Were they cheated? Were Dinamo Tbilisi prevented from winning the title? Were Dynamo Kyiv really opposed by Moscow? When everybody accuses everybody else, it is hard not to conclude that conspiracy is just an easy excuse. That tale has obvious elements of mythology, but the gist is probably true: no nation has been so put upon as the Armenians. In his final public speech, delivered in Liverpool in 1896, William Gladstone spoke of them as ‘a martyred people’ and said, ‘Of all the nations of the world, no history has been so blameless as the history of the Armenian people’. The following century brought massacres at the hands of two different enemies and a devastating earthquake; suffering has become a national characteristic. The first thing that struck me about Armenia was how much smoother the road became once I’d crossed the border from Georgia. The second, when our minibus stopped by a low hut just before the road wobbled into a steep-sided cutting, was that the smell of damp woodsmoke mingling with coffee steam is the greatest known to man. That was a chilly morning, the cloud squatting low over the Caucasus and casting everything in soft focus, but, sitting outside on a rough-hewn bench, eating lamb freshly grilled over an open fire, was one of those moments when all seems perfect with the world. That journey from Tbilisi to Yerevan is one of the most beautiful I have ever made, seven hours of rocky crags, deep gorges and mist-shawled valleys. Even the border post, by a bridge strung high above a frothing river, was spectacular, the view itself well worth the $20 bribe I had to pay for a visa. Yerevan, itself, is a strikingly unusual city, constructed almost entirely of pink stone, and dominated by Mount Ararat, which looms on the horizon, just over the border with Turkey. There was something weird about the sun there as well; just as the light seems somehow thinner in northern cities such as Gothenburg or St Petersburg, so in Armenia it seemed thicker, as though what I were seeing was not the city itself, but the city as it would look in an over-coloured postcard from the sixties. That first evening I wandered up through Victory Park towards the huge statue of Mother Armenia that glowers down from the plinth on the hill where Stalin used to stand, past the fountains that, at the time, the government couldn’t afford to run, and paused on the way back for a beer or two. On the wall of the tennis club opposite, I noticed, there were three huge photographs of Andre Agassi. That seemed a little odd, but then again, I reasoned, it was a tennis club. As I walked back towards the hotel, though, I became aware that Agassi was everywhere – his face on billboards, his name scrawled in graffiti. Agassi is, as the receptionist in the hotel told me, ‘Armenian by blood’. So, too, are Youri Djorkaeff and Alain Boghossian, both of them members of the France squads that won Euro 2000 and the World Cup two years earlier. Invaded variously by Persia, Turkey and Russia, mass migrations have been a regular part of Armenian history, and the diaspora has been so accepted as a fact of life that it is a point of pride that there is an Armenian community in virtually every country in the world. There is a curious sense in examining Armenian football that Armenia is not the place to start. Certainly Djorkaeff, brought up in Décines near Lyon, is highly sensitive to his dual background. ‘My first country is France,’ he explained, ‘but I would never forget that I have a very strong Armenian streak, and that when I speak up for that, I am speaking not just for a cause that is mine, but also my grandparents’. That runs in my blood.’ He is Armenian through his mother, while his father, Jean, who also played for France, is a Kalmuck, one of an ethnic group based on the north-western shore of the Caspian Sea. Djorkaeff first visited Armenia in 1999 to play for France in a friendly. It was a trip that clearly left a lasting impression. ‘My father was the only one who had been to Armenia,’ he said. ‘When I set off I was there to win a match, but now I recall faces, images. I saw Lake Sevan and Echmiadzin [the religious capital], and of course I liked them, but I wasn’t there to be a tourist. I walked in the street and met people. It really was extraordinary. They treated me like a head of state. I’d had no idea how they saw me in Armenia. President Kocharyan gave me an Armenian passport, which is a symbol for my family, our history, Décines and the Armenians of France. I want to share these honours with all the Armenians I represent. When I was champion of Europe or the world, it was the Armenians of France who were champions of the world.’ There is a sense, not merely from Djorkaeff that to be an Armenian is something that transcends national boundaries, that there is something that binds all Armenians, wherever they live. Djorkaeff spoke of a strength drawn from a common sense of adversity, of a will to survive that is passed on through the generations. ‘All people who have suffered draw strength from their misfortune, and the trace of their trials is without doubt registered in the genes,’ he explained. ‘When you have grandparents who have suffered, who have lived through things through which you will never live, you don’t have the right to complain, but there is a lesson to be learned, and it can really become a strength. My grandparents never complained and that has served as an example to me.’ In that context it is perhaps not surprising that it was at the Armenian Theological Seminary in Calcutta, the destination of one of the earliest migrations, that, in 1890, the first Armenian football club was established. By 1900 there were two Armenian clubs in the Turkish port of Izmir (or Smyrna, as was) and, before long, Tork and Araks were founded in Istanbul (then Constantinople). Armenians also had significant parts to play in the development of the game in various parts of the Russian empire. Martin Merzhanov, the founder of the seminal magazine Football-Hockey Weekly, for instance, although born in Nakhichevan-na-Donu, was of Armenian heritage, as was the Kuban-born Abram Dangulov, who managed Krylya Sovetov and Spartak Moscow and discovered a number of greats including Nikita Simonyan. It was not until 1920 that the first official game was played on Armenian soil, Kumayri (which became Leninakan in Soviet times and is now Gyumri) beating Yerevan 3–1 in the English Garden in the capital. The first Armenian championship was established in 1936, and was won by Dinamo Yerevan, with Spartak Yerevan finishing second. Both applied to the Supreme Council for Physical Culture to be admitted to the Soviet Supreme Championship. The request was met, but in a typically puzzling way, with Spartak being placed in Group D (the fourth division) and Dinamo in Group E (the fifth); the result, according to Ghazaros Teknejyan, Spartak’s goalkeeper at the time, of lobbying by Nikolay Starostin, the chairman of the Spartak Voluntary Sports Society. It was only after the Second World War and the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians that football really took off in what remained the smallest of the Soviet republics. Even then, though, Armenian clubs seem never to have been taken particularly seriously, to have been there primarily to make up the numbers and reflect the greater glory of those clubs preferred by the state. Ararat Yerevan would become the great Armenian team, but Dinamo Yerevan were the first to play in the Soviet top flight, earning promotion in 1948. Success, though, was denied them by the usual tangle of Machiavellian intrigue and the fact that they weren’t very good. There is, for once, clear evidence of interference, although it seems less that Armenians were targeted than that they were considered exploitable. Inspired by their goalkeeper Sergey Zatikyan – who kept twenty-seven clean sheets that season, including twelve in succession – Spartak went unbeaten through the 1954 season to finish top of one of the three parallel second divisions, and reached the Cup final, where they had realistic hopes of upsetting Dynamo Kyiv. Unfortunately, 1954 was the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s unification with Russia, and so, at least if the Armenian version of the story is to be believed, the authorities in Moscow decided it would be fitting if a Ukrainian side won the Cup, a gesture the noted Russian referee Nikolay Latyshev, who took charge of the 1962 World Cup final, supported wholeheartedly enough to disallow an apparently legitimate Spartak goal, deny them two penalties and then allow a Dynamo winner from an offside Mikhail Koman. As if Latyshev’s performance weren’t bad enough, Axel Vartanyan, the doyen of Soviet football historians, later uncovered a document from a conference of Soviet football doctors the following January in which the Dynamo Kyiv physio Yuriy Bezyinnyi admitted his players had habitually used illegal stimulants that season. Vartanyan, it should be added, despite being of Armenian blood himself, is extremely doubtful of claims that that Cup final was fixed. The sense of grievance in Yerevan, though, was only to intensify. Spartak finished fifth of six in the promotion playoffs that year and so remained in the second division, but the following season they were on course to finish top again (this time the second flight was split into two rather than three groups), when they met Dom Ofitseov Sverdlovsk, an army team and their main challengers, in Yerevan on 9 October. With five minutes remaining, and the scores level at 2–2, Haroutiun Karajyan scored what seemed to be the winner Spartak needed to go top of the table, only for the Moscow-based referee, a Comrade Shvetsov, to rule it out, igniting a near-riot in the Hanrapetakan Stadium. As the disorder spread into the streets, players and officials had to be secretly transported from the stadium. The leadership of the Armenian Sports Committee was dismissed, but a protest was sent to the Section of Soviet Football (SFS) nonetheless, and they ordered the game to be replayed in Odessa. Very early in the rematch, Sverdlovsk were awarded a penalty, which they converted to secure their promotion. Spartak Yerevan did finally win their promotion to the top flight in 1959, but it was Ararat Yerevan who gave Armenian football its greatest moment. They took their place in the Supreme League in 1966 and never relinquished it, and, with such players as Eduard Markarov and Arkady Andriasyan – not to mention Sergey Bondarenko, a player who scored so often with long-range drives that it became a common joke to say that ‘he had scored from the fish shop’ that stood a couple of miles down the road from the Hrazdan Stadium – became one of the dominant forces in Soviet football in the early seventies. The golden year was 1973, when, under Nikita Simonyan, they did the double. ‘It was much harder to win the league with Ararat than it was with Spartak Moscow.’ Simonyan told me. ‘We had some good players, but essentially we were a provincial side. I had to change my personal style, because the players had a different mentality. We had two Ukrainians in the side, but they had lived in Yerevan from childhood, so they had adopted the spirit of the people. Players from the south are more skilful, more technical, even if it is bad for the team as a collective. You have to stick them to each other.’ Ararat, named after a mountain that most Armenians believe should lie on their side of the Turkish border, even more than Dynamo Kyiv, became a locus for nationalism. ‘In Ukraine there were five teams.’ Simonyan said, ‘but in Georgia or Armenia only one, so these really were the teams of the republic. They were financed from the budget of the republic, and the politicians paid a lot of attention to the performance of the team.’ Fans would chant ‘Haya-stan, hoop-tor’ (Come on, Armenia’) or simply ‘Hayar’ (‘Armenians’) followed by three short claps, both refrains that were taken up by the independence movement. That nationalist spirit had its most obvious outpouring on the night of the Cup final in 1973, when Ararat, facing Oleksandr Sevydov’s Dynamo Kyiv, had the chance to avenge Spartak’s defeat to the same opponents nineteen years earlier. It was, by all accounts, an outstanding game, which, with two minutes remaining, Dynamo were leading 1–0. Sevydov then decided to withdraw Oleh Blokhin and Victor Kolotov, two of his best players, and, a minute later, the Ararat number eight Levon Ishtoyan broke into the box and slammed an equaliser into the top corner. In extra-time he added a second to the disbelief and delight of the 15,000 Armenians in the Luzhniki. Back in Yerevan, car horns were sounded through the night, nationalist songs were sung and, in tribute to Ishtoyan, the number eight was painted on the back of the Lenin monument in Republic Square. The paint was soon removed, and Lenin too has now disappeared, the place where his statue stood marked only by a patch of dead grass. Ararat, similarly, are not what they once were. Now that independence has been won, there is no need to use their games as a stage to protest for it, and their crowds have slumped to only a few hundred; perversely, Armenian football is now suffering because they have stopped being persecuted. Ararat were even suspended from competition for the 2003 season after their head coach, Arkady Andriasyan, refused to allow one senior and four junior members of his squad to join up with the Armenia squad for training matches in Israel, concerned, he said, over safety. Ararat’s sponsors reacted by dismissing Andriasyan and merging Ararat with another team they backed, Lernagorts from Kapan. They appointed a new coach and director, but Andriasyan’s suspension was lifted on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the double success, and he was reappointed coach at the beginning of 2005. With the emergence of powerful sponsors from the diaspora – the American businessman Hrach Kaprielian and Vardan Surmakesh, the president of the Swiss company Frank Müller – they welcomed Andriasyan’s return with bullish noises about restoring the team to its former glory. Whether that is possible, given the apathy that independence has brought, is doubtful. About sixty miles north of Yerevan is Tsakhadzor, which was once a state-of-the-art Soviet Olympic training complex, and now operates as a half-hearted tourist resort. The name means ‘Valley of the Flowers’, and when I was there, it seemed the flowers were reclaiming their valley. It was an eerie place, set high in the mountains, the wind whistling through its emptiness as though it were a lost Inca city, abandoned in a moment at some unknown catastrophe. It was there, in 1987, that Robert Emmiyan set the European long-jump record with a leap of 8.86 metres, which, at the time, was the second-longest jump in history. A decade and a half later, though, the sandpit was waist-high in rosebay willowherb. A few yards away, across a cracked and faded running track, was an overgrown football pitch. Climbing a little through the pines, I came to the swimming pool, empty but for a sludgy covering of dark-green weed. Just above that was the gymnasium, on the wall of which, beneath a stylised mural of a gymnast, was written the Olympic motto: Citius, altius, fortius. Bleak irony was a particularly Soviet trope. The catastrophe here, though, is not unknown. On 7 December 1988, Armenia suffered a massive earthquake that claimed over 30,000 lives and destroyed huge numbers of buildings. The quake was centred near the northern city of Spitak, but it is estimated that a third of the country was affected. The economy was further destabilised by the war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to the influx of several hundred thousand refugees. By 1993, many Armenians could survive only with the help of relatives from abroad, while electricity was often available only for an hour or two a day. Conditions got so bad that around a million Armenians left the country in the five years following independence. Investing in sport would have been a ludicrous extravagance. In football, the first years after independence, as they were elsewhere, were marked by confusion over the league structure, withdrawals, walkovers, bankruptcies, and politicking within the federation. Presidents arrived and disappeared almost as regularly as match-fixing was alleged. Remarkably, the first independent championship was won jointly by Shirak Gyumri, a team from the area worst affected by the earthquake. Poignantly, the brochure they produced ahead of that first season contained the pictures of three players – Albert Akimyan, Sargis Sahakyan and Gevork Vardikyan – who had been killed in the disaster. Led by their controversial president Garnik Khachatyan, they were the only team to compete in each of the first twelve championships, winning three of them, despite paying wages of only around $50–100 a month and refusing to sign any foreign players. They finished bottom of the eight-team first division in 2004, but retained their place in the top flight not, the Football Federation of Armenia announced, ‘as indulgence to some particular team, but as the first step of planned enlargement of the league to fourteen clubs’. It is Homenetmen, though, whose progress is most representative of the chaos of the Armenian league. By the second season they had acquired a sponsor and were known as Homenetmen-AOSS, and the year after that they became ASS-SKIF. They were back to plain old Homenetmen for the transitional 1995 spring season, by which time Homenmen, an entirely different team, had emerged. Homenetmen then became Pyunik (which translates as Phoenix) and won the championship in 1995–96, retaining it the following season. In 1999 (the seasons having reverted to spring-autumn), Pyunik’s founder, Ruben Hayrapetyan, withdrew his financial backing, and the entire playing staff joined Kilikia. They then lost a relegation play-off, but Homenmen, who were by then known as Erebuni, withdrew from the following season’s championship along with FK Yerevan, allowing Kilikia to retain their place. They played the following season without incident, but in 2001 were expelled from the league for nonpayment of fees after playing a single match. Confusingly, that match was a 3–2 defeat against a side called Pyunik. They had been restored by Hayrapetyan, and took their place in the first division after Armenikum, one of the promoted sides, were disbanded by their sponsors. The new Pyunik went on to win the next four championships, including a run of fifty-nine games unbeaten between October 2002 and November 2004. The excellent rsssf website, in an exasperated footnote, explains it has taken the decision to refer to this new entity as Pyunik [II]. The first three of those championships were won at a canter, but, gradually, other teams are beginning to challenge their dominance. Banants, for instance, who finished third in 2004, show how clubs can regroup after financial difficulties. They were founded in 1992 by Sargis Israelyan, who demanded his side should play open, attacking football. That May they were rewarded with victory over Homenetmen in the first independent Armenian Cup final, but, three years later, they went out of business. Israelyan refounded the club in 2001. ‘The team of the nineties was better equipped technically and played more romantic football,’ Israelyan said. ‘Nowadays our teams are more athletic and rely on pace and the functional qualities of players. That it is now a prerequisite for success.’ The club also now runs a football school – ‘an economic necessity’, according to Israelyan; pragmatism is replacing romance, and the traditional, free-spirited Armenian style is disappearing. Perhaps it was because I’d significantly overpaid him, but the taxi driver who brought me back from the cathedral at Zwartnots was hugely friendly. He knew about a dozen words of English, and I about half that in Armenian, but he gave me some apricots, bought from an old woman by the side of the road, and then, after I had somehow explained that I wrote about football for a living, he insisted on taking a detour. ‘No extra, no extra,’ he assured me. As he turned a corner, I saw, looming ahead of us, the new national stadium, itself a symbol of Armenia’s economic upturn. Modern stadia tend to follow a similar pattern from Manchester to Mali – all functional concrete and coloured steel – but the Hanrapetakan was a welcome exception, featuring, midway up the main stand, a number of archways in which stood bronze statues of figures from classical mythology. I wandered admiringly up and down the car park for a while, then the driver beckoned me to a gate at one end of the stand. It was locked, but between the hinges and the wall there was a gap, through which, after much badgering from the driver to overcome my nervous reluctance, I squeezed. Inside, the ground was decorated in a more orthodox fashion, although the normal rounded rectangle was pressed out at one side to accommodate the 100m track, so from above it would have resembled a giant omega. After drifting aimlessly around for a bit and trying out a few seats, I realised that once the adrenaline rush has passed, there’s not a lot you can do after breaking in to a national stadium, so I broke out again. The next morning, I took the misguided decision to have breakfast at the hotel. A wizened old man in a stained maroon uniform slapped a plate of limp salad and tough cheese down in front of me, and then gave me a thimbleful of thick orange-coloured juice. I drained it, and asked if I could have some more. The waiter looked at me, snapped ‘No’, turned away and wandered off to be surly elsewhere. The Soviet hangover, clearly, has not entirely gone. Generally, though, Armenia, like a Pyunik, is on the rise. The water features leading up to Mother Armenia are working again, the Northern Avenue – designed by the great Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan in the 1920s but never built – is finally being constructed and the roads have been improved so the journey to Tbilisi takes only four and a half hours. Tsakhkadzor is being restored, and Republic Square now boasts 2,750 fountains. The football, too, is improving, and great hope rides with Edgar Manucharyan, a talented young forward who joined Ajax in the summer of 2005. If international success remains a long way off, there are at least signs of clubs establishing themselves on pragmatic, businesslike lines; although it would be naïve to imagine that that does not also probably mean the involvement, at some level, of Armenia’s criminal oligarchies. ‘Football is like grape juice,’ the Armenian writer Armen Nikoghosyan put it. ‘From this, young wine can be prepared, or, if you wait a while longer, a stronger wine. You can take from this, spirit for the production of vodka, or distil the spirit one more time, pour it into oak casks and wait until it has become cognac. The more effort and money we spend, the more Armenian football will develop, but at the moment we can speak only of a positive tendency after years of fermentation.’ True as that may be, Armenia’s greatest contribution to world football remains in having provided the cognac with which Valeriy Lobanovskyi pickled himself.