Saturday, 6 September 2008

Football diplomacy


Amernia versus Turkey - a true historic game not only because these two teams have never played against each other before, but also because it's the first time ever a Turkish president visits the small landlocked Caucasus country. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia became independent in 1991 the two countries haven't had diplomatic relations. The 325 kilometer border between the two countries has remained closed for 15 years now.

The tension is palpable as we arrive at the stadium just outside Yerevan's city center. Highest security everywhere: police, military, bodyguards, secret service - with such a high level visit, 150 Turkish officials and more than 400 international journalists, the Armenian government obviously doesn't want to take any risks.

It would actually be the ideal time to break into Armenia's central bank, one of our colleagues jokes. Hmmmm.


So here we are in Yerevan's modern Hrazdan stadium. It's a beautiful late summer evening, very windy, something historic is in the air. I'm surprised to see that the stadium is not sold out. Ok, I hadn't expected to see heaps of Turkish fans. Fifa had reserved 2,700 seats for them, but with the closed Turkish-Armenian border it's clear that it was very difficult for them to travel to the Armenian capital.

Earlier in the day I had met a few dedicated Turkish fans who had driven all the way - 12 hours via Georgia. But in the end, they were only a handful. And the few planes that were chartered from Istanbul, I was told, were full with Armenians living in Istanbul - not Turks.

Tonight seems to be all about politics. As the Turkish anthem plays, everyone in the stadium gets up, though buuhhing and whistling is clearly overriding the music. Armenian fans seated in the wing facing president Abdullah Gul and his Armenian counterpart unfold a huge banner saying RECOGNITION & REPARATION.

The Armenian genocide is still on everyone's mind here. And you actually can't blame them, with more than 1 million Armenians massacred by the Turks in 1915 during World War I. The Turks have always denied this was a massacre. But for Armenia and many other countries around the world there's no arguing about it, it was genocide and it's high time for the Turkish neighbour to admit it.

But back to the game. No, I'm not biased.


It's actually a rather boring game, neither Armenia nor Turkey plays particularly well. Turkey scores twice, much to the disappointment of Armenian fans. The less than 100 Turkish fans parked in one corner of the stadium have no chance to make their voices heard and both times the Turks score the stadium is silent. So much so, I both times have to ask my neighbour, a Japanese political correspondent based in Cairo looking rather bored, if this was actually a goal. Quite unreal, but no doubt historic. Let's hope the next goal will be forming diplomatic relations.

Football diplomacy by Aventures

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