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Turkish-Armenian Football Diplomacy Gets A Rematch In Bursa

Turkish, Armenian Presidents Meet In Bursa
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Turkish President Abdullah Gul welcomes his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian ahead of the game in Bursa. (Video: RFE/RL's Armenian Service)

(RFE/RL) -- Turkey defeated Armenia on the soccer field in a match that pitted the two longtime political rivals against each other just days after their countries signed a historic diplomatic accord.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish President Abdullah Gul both attended the match, which was held in Bursa, a former Ottoman imperial capital.

It was the culmination of a round of "football diplomacy" that began last year, when -- in a goodwill gesture – Turkey's Gul attended a game in Armenia.

After months of furious diplomacy, last weekend the two nations agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open their border within two months.

Turkey's Halil Altintop scored with a header in the 16th minute, and Servet Cetin fired the ball into the Armenian net in the 28th minute to make it 2-0, a lead that held until the end.

After the first goal, Sarkisian shook Gul's hand in congratulations.

Heavy Security

The game was televised live in both countries. Some 3,000 police were on duty for the match and undercover plainclothes security officers sat among the spectators to prevent disturbances. Police in riot gear stood outside the stadium.

Officials had banned fans from chanting political slogans and discouraged fans from displaying Azerbaijani flags at the game.

RFE/RL correspondent Gevorg Stamboltsyan attended the match and said he saw three Azerbaijani flags briefly unfurled in the stands (video below). He reported seeing some Turkish fans outside the stadium throwing stones and plastic bottles as a bus carrying Armenian journalists passed by, but he called the incident "minor."

Flag Flap At Turkey-Armenia Soccer Match
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The announcer urged fans to show "traditional Turkish hospitality" to the visiting team and not to jeer or whistle during the playing of the Armenian national anthem. His appeal was mostly ignored.

Turkish fans booed and whistled as an announcer read out the Armenian lineup, and cheered the Turkish players. But when a group of fans released white doves in a gesture of peace, applause rang out.

Political Significance

Going into the game, anticipation in both countries was high.

In Yerevan, a cafe owner named Azat who was expecting fans to gather to watch the match said there was more interest in the game's political significance than as a sporting event.

"I think the process of the game is very important considering the latest steps the two countries have made politically," he told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement began when Sarkisian invited Gul to attend a World Cup match in Yerevan last September.

It culminated on October 10 when the two countries' foreign ministers signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations -- which Turkey had severed in 1993 in solidarity with ally Azerbaijan over Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Political Hurdles

The rapprochement was not without its critics. Nationalist politicians in Armenia as well as many in the nation's 5.7 million-strong diaspora staunchly opposed the deal because Ankara has not recognized the mass killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians toward the end of World War I as genocide.

Bursa residents protest after local authorities banned the waving of Azerbaijani flags at the Turkey-Armenia match.
The deal has also raised opposition in Azerbaijan, which is against Turkey normalizing relations with Armenia in the absence of significant progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, one man in Baku says that while he has no problem with Armenia and Turkey playing football with each other, reestablishing diplomatic ties is another matter entirely.

"If we are talking about soccer, then may the best team win. There are no borders in sports," the man says.

"But opening the Turkish-Armenian border is not right. Brothers should have a common enemy. If [the Turks] are our brothers then our enemy must be their enemy, too."

Welcoming Atmosphere

Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Turkey was upbeat. The mass-circulation Turkish daily "Hurriyet" described the game as "our most ambitious match...not for victory, but to cement friendship and establish peace."

Gul personally met with Turkish fan groups and asked them to show the Armenians the same hospitality he received when he attended the game in Armenia in September.

In remarks on October 13, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also urged fans to respect their Armenian guests and not give in to any provocations.

He also called on Armenia to move forward on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process to ease the ratification of the normalization agreement in Turkey's parliament.

RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report

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