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Armenia, Azerbaijan Row Spills Over into Football

Where will the two warring nations play their European qualification matches?
A seemingly irresolvable row is growing over the location of European Championship qualifying football matches between the two implacable Caucasian foes, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A meeting in Cardiff of the board of Europe’s governing football body UEFA on April 18 failed to determine where the two matches between the two sides, due to take place this autumn, should be held. Another meeting has been called for mid-July to rule on the issue.

According to the schedule for Group A, the first game between the two for qualification to the 2008 European Championship should take place in Baku on September 8, to be followed by a return match in Yerevan four days later.

However, although Armenia has agreed to host the Azerbaijani team, Azerbaijan is so far insisting that it will not allow the Armenians to play in Baku.

Before the qualifying draw took place, UEFA sent out a letter to all of Europe’s football authorities setting out the regulations for qualifying matches. The letter said that all teams should play their home games in their own countries and that the state should guarantee the security of visitors.

The Armenian football federation expressed its willingness to travel to Baku and then to host the Azerbaijanis in Yerevan. But Azerbaijan’s football federation, AFFA, and the country’s ministry of sport said it was impossible to receive the Armenians in Baku and suggested the matches should be played on neutral territory instead.

The two countries have been in a state of open or suspended conflict for almost two decades over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. Although open hostilities ended in a ceasefire 13 years ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees are unable to return home and large areas of Azerbaijan remain under the military control of Armenian forces.

A ceasefire line, manned by troops, divides the two sides and contacts between the two nationalities are extremely limited.

While many Armenians say they favour contact and collaboration, many Azerbaijanis say this is an attempt to normalise the status quo in the Armenians’ favour and they cannot countenance any contact with Armenians, “as long as they are occupying our land”.

Not just citizens of Armenia, but ethnic Armenians as a whole, are generally not permitted to visit Azerbaijan, ostensibly on security grounds. A handful of Azerbaijanis do visit Armenia, but are guarded by government security service personnel when they do so.

This makes the matter of organising two international football matches for both players and fans a big international headache.

Tigran Israelian, spokesman for Armenia’s football federation, said that his country was following UEFA’s recommendations and would take all necessary measures to ensure the Azerbaijan’s security in Yerevan.

“In UEFA’s statutes, it’s clearly stated that the receiving side is obliged to provide all security measures,” said Israelian. “Now UEFA has to take a final decision, as both sides have already set out their positions on these matches.”

Azerbaijan’s minister of youth and sport Azad Rahimov suggested that the two matches could be played instead in Austria, Switzerland or Ukraine.

“We cannot raise the flag and perform the national anthem of a country which is occupying a large part of our territory,” Rahimov told APA news agency. “There is also a technical aspect to the question, which is that we cannot guarantee the security of the whole team and of the fans.”

Akif Nagi of the Azerbaijani nationalist Karabakh Liberation Organisation went further, saying, “I can definitely say only one thing, so long as we are enemies any contact between us is out of the question.”

Boris Navasardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club, which has regular contacts with Azerbaijan, said he thought the security issue was a smokescreen.

“The authorities in both countries possess enough resources, both physical and propagandistic, to make sure the matches go ahead normally,” said Navasardian.

“I don’t want to create the impression that the Armenians are behaving constructively and the Azerbaijanis destructively,” he went on. “It’s simply that in the situation we have Armenia is taking tactical steps in order to demonstrate its constructive attitude and agreement for the game to take place in Yerevan, so as to win the advantage in the football contest.”

Football is not the only sport where Armenian and Azerbaijani sportsmen are scheduled to meet this year. This autumn Baku is due to stage the world wrestling championships and the top eight performers in each weight category will win the right to take part in the Olympic Games in Beijing next year.

Leva Vardanian, general secretary of Armenia’s wrestling federation, said that thus far he had been assured that Armenian wrestlers would be able to travel to Baku.

“The other day I met the president of the World Wrestling Federation and he assured me that they had talked to the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, and he had promised to provide security for the Armenians,” he said.

Azerbaijan’s sports minister Rahimov said that it was within his government’s power to provide security for the Armenian wrestlers – and that this was proof that his bid to exclude the football team was not a political decision.

No one in the ministry had an answer to IWPR’s question, “Will you raise the flag of Armenia and play the national anthem if an Armenian wrestler becomes world champion.”

Azerbaijani sports commentator Elnur Agayev said that no one in Azerbaijan believed that any of the Armenian wrestlers could achieve first place, but the Armenian football team was a more serious proposition. Several Armenian footballers play in top European clubs and the Armenian team stands a good chance of beating Azerbaijan – and if this happens there could be a risk of violence after the game.

Fuad Asadov, general secretary of AFFA, told IWPR he could not receive the Armenian football team in Baku – even if this meant suspension from UEFA. The very idea, he said, was “not serious”.

It seems likely at least that the match in Yerevan will go ahead because, according to the Armenian federation, if the visiting team refuses to show up, the home team will be awarded a 3-0 victory and the missing team may be disqualified from the next championship.

Most football fans in both countries are simply keenly looking forward to the games.

Azerbaijani fan, 22-year-old student Emil Jafarli, said he hoped Azerbaijan’s home match was in Baku because he could not afford to travel to another country. “Wherever the game happens, I hope that our boys win,” he said. “The fact that football has turned into politics is quite normal if you consider that we are enemies with Armenia.”

“Even in Soviet times matches between Yerevan’s Ararat and the Baku team Neftchi were very tense,” said Gevorg, a 36-year-old Armenian. “Then we were in the same country and although there weren’t any serious differences between us, there were sometimes really unpleasant incidents in the stands.”

Human rights activist Avaz Hassanov wants to see both matches take place in the home capitals.

“If we receive the Armenian team at home in Baku it means that we will achieve something positive in sorting out our relations,” said Hassanov. “Sport does not have a homeland or a nationality. And the Azerbaijani team will defeat the Armenian one with its beautiful game.”

Vafa Jafarova is a journalist with the Baku newspaper Khazri. Artur Nazarian is a reporter with the independent television company A1+ in Yerevan. Naira Bulgadarian is a reporter with the Civil Initiative newspaper in Vanadzor, Armenia. This article was written as part of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.