By Misak Krkiasharian and Narek Galstian
Armenia’s leading football club on Thursday refused to play against a team from Azerbaijan in the semi-final of an annual soccer tournament held in Moscow, citing organizers’ failure to guarantee the security of its players and fans.
FC Pyunik Yerevan, which has won the Armenian football championships for the past four years, and the Baku side Neftchi were scheduled to face off in the CIS Cup on Saturday for the second consecutive time in just over a year. Their previous game, won by Neftchi, was marred by brawls between rival players and fans.
“Failing to receive appropriate written guarantees, the management of the Pyunik club decided not to participate in the game in order not to politicize it and to avoid any provocations with unpredictable and dangerous consequences for fans, players and members of the Armenian community,” the club said in a statement.
The Pyunik vice-president, Karen Harutiunian, claimed that his players heard threats to their life from Azerbaijani fans present at the Yerevan side’s Wednesday night game with Ukraine champions Shakhtar Donetsk. “Besides, statements with a similar content were immediately posted on all Russian-language Azerbaijani news websites,” he told reporters in Yerevan.
But a spokesman for the organizing committee of the Moscow tournament, that brings together top football teams from the former Soviet Union, said security at the game would have been tight enough. In a statement, Andrey Malasolov said as many as 1,500 Russian police were due to be deployed at the indoors Olympiisky stadium, the venue of the Pyunik-Neftchi fixture, to prevent a repeat of last year’s trouble.
Harutiunian dismissed the statement, saying that it was issued after Pyunik players and coaching staff left the Russian capital for Yerevan.
The Armenian Football Federation refused to confirm on the dramatic dispute that threatens Armenian clubs’ continued participation in the CIS Cup. Its chairman and Pyunik’s de facto owner, Ruben Harutiunian, reacted angrily to an RFE/RL phone call asking for an explanation. Hayrapetian claimed that the club’s pullout from the tournament “does not concern” him.
The Armenian team, coached by a Dutch tactician and made up of mostly young players, performed unexpectedly well at the latest Moscow tournament, beating Shakhtar 3-1 to set up the semi-final clash with Neftchi.
The cancelled tie would have coincided with the 16th anniversary of the entry into Baku of Soviet troops that crushed a nationalist pro-independence movement which threatened to bring down Soviet Azerbaijan’s government. Scores of Azerbaijanis died in the bloody crackdown that followed indiscriminate killings and mass reports of ethnic Armenian residents of Baku.