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Playing With 'The Enemy'

The bigger picture
The bigger picture
In most cases when a Turk and an Armenian meet accidentally, they look into each other's eyes with angst. That look is almost always rather intense and uneasy. The instant flashback to horrible pages of history almost instantaneously makes them personal adversaries, even if they've never seen each other before. But that intensity may be eased a little after the presidents of Armenia and Turkey meet this weekend in Yerevan to watch a football game between the two national teams.

It should be quite an entertaining event, not least because of the enormous popularity of the game (people are as fascinated with football in Armenia as in any other corner of Europe or Latin America).

But it is also the first encounter of its kind between historic enemies and neighbors who have never opened the door to see or talk to each other. As many predict in both countries, the match between Armenia and Turkey will be more than a football game. More than 150 foreign journalists will come to Armenia to cover the game, an unprecedented media presence for the country.

In Armenia, as in the other republics of the former Soviet Union, there was no national team, there was just a best team, which would at best play in the first Soviet championship league. Football matches used to become battles wherein victories were celebrated as defeating the virtual armies of rival nations. I still remember the football games between Russians and Armenians, and between Armenians and Georgians and Azerbaijanis. The football stadium was perhaps the only place where you had an opportunity to express collectively your national pride, and in some cases frustration and even rage, without fear of being punished by the communist regime.

The much-anticipated match on September 6 will be at least as tense as those games used to be, despite assurances by Armenian officials that the Armenian fans will be on their best behavior and protests will be orderly. The Dashnaktsutiun party, a coalition partner in the current Armenian government, takes a hard-line stance on Armenian-Turkish issues. Its leaders have promised that thousands of their supporters will follow every step President Abdullah Gul takes. The "Dashnaks" are planning to stage protest actions at the airport and at the stadium. However, a party spokesman said they will express their political views in a "normal and acceptable way."

Preparations for the match in Yerevan are in full swing. After Armenia gained independence in 1991, the Hrazdan stadium that was once proudly touted as one of the most grandiose Communist-era sports temples stood abandoned for years and became a marketplace for small traders. Armenians still remember their football achievements in 1973, when Ararat won the Soviet championship in Hrazdan. The stadium has now been repaired, rebuilt and reconstructed in bright modern colors, and can accommodate more than 50,000 fans.

The Armenian government and football officials are doing everything in their power to prevent any manifestation of soccer hooliganism that could damage the diplomatic impact of the game. After all, the two most distinguished guests will be sitting next to each other and will try to put a good face on anything that might possibly go wrong. Ruben Hairapetian, the powerful head of the football federation and one of Armenia's wealthiest businessmen, has held meetings with football fans and promised them financial assistance if they behave and refrain from shouting slogans or using bad language. He also said that banners with references to the Armenian Genocide or other political issues will not be allowed in the stadium. "Only football-related placards will be allowed there," Hairapetian said.

It remains to be seen if the Armenian fans will listen. At least there will be no fistfights between Turkish and Armenian fans: The Turkish Football Federation has notified their Armenian colleagues that they will not use their 5 percent ticket quota for the match, because Turkish fans have decided not to travel to Armenia. This will make the job of the Armenian police and security officials much easier, as they will only have to control their own citizens.

The Turkish national team finished third in the last European championship and is considered the favorite in this game. But the Armenian team, which ranks just 94th in the FIFA ranking, is known to be a tough team to beat when it plays at home. The Armenian national team players and their Danish coach, Jan Poulsen, will be rewarded handsomely if they manage to beat one of Europe's strongest teams. But the Armenian football federation didn't reveal how large the promised bonus will be.

Hrair Tamrazian has been director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service since 2003. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necesarily reflect those of RFE/RL