It’s ten minutes to five on a lush summer afternoon in Yerevan, Armenia, and Champions League history is about to be made. FC Santa Coloma’s Marc Puyol takes one last look at the blaring neon scoreboard and launches a hopeful 70 yard ball towards a penalty box teeming with the blue of the Andorran champions. As he does so the clock silently announces that the allotted five minutes of injury time are up. Santa are 3-2 down, facing elimination.
The ball is flicked on and, as it hangs in the air, time seemingly slows to a crawl. It lands at the feet of goalkeeper Eloy Casals Rubio who, having joined his team’s last-minute onslaught, controls deftly and fires into the bottom corner. Eloy disappears beneath a stampede of disbelieving teammates as the part-timers of Santa Coloma celebrate becoming the first ever Andorran club to progress in the Champions League. Meanwhile, yards away, 11 shattered men in white shirts fall to their knees.
The next day the Armenian press doesn’t mince its words. “Never before have we witnessed such a disgrace” runs the headline on ArmenianSoccer.com. “Last night in the pages of our football history was written the most shameful chapter. Unfortunately, however, it is a fair reflection of the state of our national game.” The humiliation of FC Banants’ early exit from Europe was felt throughout the Armenian game, but the alarm bells had been blaring for years.
Twenty years of mechanised failure on the continent has meant that professional club football in Armenia is ranked below six part-time or semi-part-time European leagues in UEFA’s coefficient table, with only the amateur leagues of San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar beneath them; their score, based on the performances of all clubs in Europe over the last five seasons, is lower than that of Wales and the tiny Faroe Islands. This year Banants suffered the ignominy of being the only fully- professional side made to enter the Champions League at the first qualifying round. Just 1,500 turned up to see them lose.
Out on the streets of Yerevan, yards from the Armenia Football Academy where Banants imploded, it is not uncommon to find graffiti lobbying for the prosecution of Ruben Hayrapetyan. Since 2012 Hayrapetyan has been vociferously pursued by activists and elements of the press over his alleged involvement in the violent death of former military doctor Vahe Avetian at a Yerevan restaurant three years ago. Critics of the justice system in Armenia say that the tobacco and textiles magnate is being shielded from the law by a corrupt network of police investigators and influential fellow oligarchs, after Avetian was beaten to death at a restaurant owned by Hayrapetyan by men known to be in his employ.
“We have elections coming up and losing a person like Ruben Hayrapetyan with such a financial and criminal network would be hard for the ruling regime” said campaigner Zara Hovannisyan before Armenia went to the polls in 2013. Despite the reputation and accusations however, Hayrapetyan is a big shake in Armenian football. This is the man who in 2003 was elected to the presidency of the Armenian Football Federation (AFF). He is also symbolic of the power structure of the young republic’s national game, which is dominated by oligarchs wired tightly into the dense tapestry of the Armenian governing elite and who allow little democratic wriggle room.
The latest victims of that creaking structure are Premier League outfit FC Gandsazar. Earlier this month the company that owns and finances the club, the copper conglomerate ZCMC from the Syunik province, made it public that they intend to suspend their backing for the team on account of the Kapan-based club having used club funds to sponsor “third-person business interests.” The firm’s directors have refused to clarify these loosely defined interests, but there have been unsubstantiated accusations that Director General Vladimir Arakelyan has been misappropriating club funds, leaving the local media speculating that ZCMC are preparing to either close the club or move it out of the region.
The party line is that if the club are willing to implement “further transparency and cost control measures” to arrest the “unacceptable economic conditions” then the company will continue to fund operations, but few in Kapan are convinced. Gandsazar’s founder Ashot Asatryan, who transferred ownership of the club to ZCMC in 2002, has requested to take up the reigns and seek sponsorship elsewhere, but so far the company are refusing to budge and the impasse holds.
The problems at Gandsazar are a microcosm of the wider instabilities inherent in Armenian football; teams are totally reliant on, and at the mercy of, their wealthy owners, shackling Asatryan and his peers’ attempts to democratize their clubs. And in a country described by independent pressure group Transparency International as “entrenched in endemic and widespread corruption, with a lack of clear separation between business interests and public responsibilities”, that places football at the heart of a vast network of corruption both insidious and blatant.
A run-down of the names heading up clubs in the eight-team Premier League makes for uneasy reading. 13-time champions FC Pyunik are owned by millionaire Samuel Aleksanyan who in 2007 was accused by retail industry reps of intentionally causing a nationwide sugar shortage in order to manipulate the market, and has since established a damaging monopoly over imports. Champions League flops Banants are run by the country’s wealthiest man Oleg Mkrtchyan, who is accused of being part of a major tax-evasion network in Ukraine and who was at the centre of the third-party ownership debacle that derailed Henrikh Mkhiktaryan’s proposed transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk to Liverpool.
Meanwhile at Yerevan-based FC Mika, Mikhail Bagdasarov was issued with a writ for $22m by the Russian bank VTB over outstanding debts in 2013 shortly before the company filed for bankruptcy leaving the debt un-serviced, yet Bagdasarov’s MIKA Group continues to hold a monopoly over the country’s aviation fuel and diesel imports. Even FC Shirak chairman Arman Sahakyan, awarded the city of Gyumri’s Man of the Year award in 2010, was responsible for putting a block on a film festival organised by the Caucasus Centre of Peacemaking Initiatives to promote solidarity with Azerbaijan, with whom the country are at war. These are the men who direct the fortunes of club football in Armenia. They preside over a nation that ranks 51st of UEFA’s 54 football playing members.
For the clubs themselves the experience is one of feeling locked-in; fully conscious of the rot that gnaws away at them but unable to act. Champions Banants have averaged gates of little more than 300 in the first half of this season, whilst none of the six Yerevan-based teams has registered an attendance of 1000 or up, meaning match-day takings make barely a dent in the clubs’ operating costs.
Figures elsewhere in the country are more encouraging but only just. Gandsazar pulled a crowd of 2000 for a home game against Ulisses in August but no club in the league has managed these kinds of numbers in the months since, with the impact of having three quarters of the division’s teams based in the capital stretching the limited demand for domestic football thin. Three years ago that figure was lower – less than 50% - but the relocation of Alashkert, Banants and Mika from the provinces in recent seasons has increased the pressure on attendances and entrenched the league’s dependence on the backers.
There is also the question of the quality of product on offer to match-goers. Whilst the current national side is enriched by a golden generation of players, led by Borussia Dortmund star Mkhiktaryan, only seven of the squad picked for November’s game against Portugal were based domestically, and none made the starting 11. Of those seven five play for Pyunik, whose dominance saw them rack up 10 successive league titles between 2001 and 2010, and the other two were the reserve goalkeepers. In fact Pyunik’s youth academy was responsible for 10 of the 14 players used against Portugal, whilst three of the other four were raised and learned the game abroad.
Thanks to the cash injections of Aleksanyan Pyunik have produced and then monopolised a strong crop of young prospects in the last ten years, which whilst good news for the national team has been disastrous for the standard of competition across the Premier League. In January Ulisses sent a delegation to Brazil as part of a mission to create scouting networks in the hope of filling the hole made by the lack of talented available Armenian youngsters, but this is only likely to further weaken the links between the league and the national team.
Meanwhile national coach Bernard Challandes’ side continue to go from strength to strength. They narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in Brazil despite bringing European football virtually to a standstill with a stunning 4-0 win in Denmark in June 2013 and then drawing in Italy, and hopes are high that they can break into their first finals at the expanded Euros in France, although their qualifying bid has started sluggishly.
The disparity between the performances of the national team and the domestic clubs is stark. There are 21 places between Armenia’s ranking in Europe and that of their club counterparts; the average difference across the continent is just seven. Of those only Bosnia’s domestic game lags so drastically behind its national side with a difference of 28 places, but this is largely down to the coefficient surge brought about by a first World Cup finals appearance and the fact that the country and its clubs are flat broke.
If these numbers tell us anything at all it’s that there is immense football potential in Armenia, but a lack of regulation in the way the game is governed means it is largely going to waste. “It’s hard to say which is more ridiculous” railed ArmSoccer as Banants licked their wounds back in July, “The goal-scoring goalkeeper or the fact that our champions have been eliminated by a team of part-timers.” But it doesn’t matter. Armenian football is stuck.
Robert is @hoovesonfire.