Karabakh Footballers Anger Baku

Region goes ahead with its own league despite Azerbaijan’s objections.

Karabakh Footballers Anger Baku

Region goes ahead with its own league despite Azerbaijan’s objections.

Football officials in Nagorny-Karabakh, a self-declared state in the South Caucasus, have organised their own tournament despite strong protests from the government in Azerbaijan.



Karabakh, which won de facto independence from Baku in a conflict that ended with a ceasefire 15 years ago, is ruled by ethnic Armenians and its football players have previously appeared in Armenia’s league. But this year, for the first time since the war, it has organised it own tournament.



“The federation is now doing all it can to restore the previous strength of football in Karabakh,” said Artur Apresian, vice-president of Karabakh’s self-proclaimed football federation.



The league features nine teams and, after three rounds of matches, was being led by the team from the capital Stepanakert.



But state and football authorities in Azerbaijan, whose sovereignty over Karabakh is internationally recognised, were furious about the tournament, saying it had no backing from UEFA or FIFA (the European and world governing bodies for the sport).



“First of all you have to remember that there is no recognised republic named Nagorny Karabakh,” said Elkhan Polukhov, spokesman for the foreign ministry in Baku.



“Therefore international sports organisations cannot recognise some tournament held there. Presumably, some individual has just decided to organise this. By doing so, they are breaking the laws of Azerbaijan and the international football federation.”



The Azerbaijan football federation said it would complain to the international football authorities, even though it doubted they would even pay attention to the new league.



“They are doing a completely pointless thing. National championships have to be held under the badge of FIFA or UEFA. I do not believe that the international football organisations will recognise the results of this championship, but all the same we will send a protest in connection to this,” said Ramin Musayev, president of the PML, Azerbaijan’s professional football league.



There is a history of football being a cause of confrontation between ethnic Armenians and Azeris in Azerbaijan. As early as 1987, when the Soviet Union still existed and Armenians were just starting their agitation to break Karabakh away from Baku’s control, the club side from Kirovabad came to play in Stepanakert.



After Kirovabad lost 3-1, there were mass fights between Armenian and Azeri fans, and the Soviet government in Moscow forced the Stepanakert side to play its home games elsewhere in Azerbaijan.



“They say sport is far from politics, but of course it is not like that. As soon as you go into the international arena, then politics starts to interfere with sport,” Razmik Hovsepian, head of the Karabakh sports committee, told IWPR.



He said sportsmen from Karabakh were already hostages of politics, since they are forced to represent Armenia if they want to compete in international competitions. Last year, athletes from Karabakh won 134 medals for Armenia in various contests around the world.



Karabakh’s new football federation is trying to rectify the situation, and to find a way of legally joining the international sport body.



“We have now set the goal of becoming associate members of UEFA and playing openly at championships. Apart from this, we know there is a sub-committee of FIFA which conducts the development of the game in unrecognised countries. Next year, there will be a championship between unrecognised countries, and that is around 30 teams,” said Apresian.



A representative team of Karabakh already saw success when it became the all-Armenian champion between 2001 and 2007, but it could not play its home games in Stepanakert because of UEFA’s rules. With time passing, therefore, a whole generation of Karabakh footballers has lost the chance to play before their own fans.



“The world must understand that sport exists in Karabakh, independent of it having a recognised or unrecognised status, and talented sportsmen as well, and they have the right to fight for the title of best sportsman in the world, even though they live in a territory that is currently unrecognised,” said Rasmik Hovsepian, head of the sports committee of Karabakh.



“A sportsman’s career is too short, and no one has the moral right to take away his chance to exhibit himself in the international arena, even if Azerbaijan does not like the colours of our state flag.”



Karine Ohanyan is a freelance journalist from Nagorny Karabakh. Joshqun Eldaroglu is a freelance journalist in Baku.
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