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'Warm Turkish Welcome' For Armenian Soccer 'Import'

Armenian international Aras Ozbiliz has previously plied his trade at Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam. (file photo)
Armenian international Aras Ozbiliz has previously plied his trade at Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam. (file photo)

Armenian soccer player Aras Ozbiliz is touting his new 4 1/2-year contract with a leading Turkish club as a "new chapter," embracing what some might regard as an unlikely fan base.

"I just signed my contract with Besiktas," Ozbiliz wrote on his Instagram account alongside a photo of his signing.

The 25-year-old winger for Armenia's national team also thanked fans in Turkey for his "warm welcome" after his move to Istanbul on January 21.

Ozbiliz will play on loan from Besiktas for Rayo Vallecano, a Madrid-based Spanish team.

Relations between Turkey and Armenia remained strained over the World War I-era mass killings of ethnic Armenians, which Yerevan and 20 other governments describe as a "genocide" but which Ankara has tended to downplay as an unfortunate result of complicated wartime hostilities.

The move to Besiktas, Turkey's oldest soccer club, is a homecoming of sorts for Ozbiliz, who was born in Turkey. He immigrated with his family to the Netherlands as a child, but says he speaks fluent Turkish and has many relatives in Turkey.

Besiktas's TV channel reported that Ozbiliz said he was slightly tense before his plane landed in Istanbul but soon was happy to see that "everything went very smoothly."

Ozbiliz's transfer from Spartak Moscow, initially announced in May 2015, wasn't without controversy.

Russian media reports claim Spartak's decision to shop Ozbiliz came after he accused the Russian club's ethnic Turkish coach of making personnel decisions based on racial bias.

The reports followed an uptick in friction between Yerevan and Ankara over ceremonies marking the centennial of the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.

Soon after the annual spike in tensions between Armenia and Turkey that frequently accompanies the anniversary of the World War I-era killings, the Russian Sport-Ekspress newspaper quoted Ozbiliz as saying that coach Murat Yakin, a Turk from Switzerland, refused to return him to the club's first-string squad after an injury "maybe because" he is Armenian.

Sport-Ekspress quoted Ozbiliz as saying he was informed of Yakin's decision on April 24, 2015 -- the day Armenia hosted solemn ceremonies marking 100 years since the killings.

Ozbiliz later denied accusing Yakin of any ethnic motives.

Besiktas's TV channel reported that Ozbiliz was "very happy" about his move to Istanbul and looked forward to good relationships with his new teammates.

Selina Dogan, a Turkish lawmaker of Armenian origin, welcomed Ozbiliz to his "homeland" and "home."

Dogan wrote on her Facebook page that she hoped Ozbiliz's move would help "strengthen ties between Armenian and Turkish societies."

Ozbiliz, who has dual Armenian-Dutch citizenship, has been a member of Armenia's national team since 2012. He previously played for the Dutch club Ajax and Russia's Kuban Krasnodar.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service

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