By Misak Krkyasharian
European football’s governing body would like Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s national teams to play each other in their respective capitals but may agree to neutral venues for the matches for security reasons, UEFA’s chief executive said on Tuesday.
The two squads will have to face each other for the first time in their short history after being drawn into the same Group A of the qualifying competition for the 2008 European football championship. The UEFA draw created a logistical nightmare for the football federations of the two South Caucasus states that remain in a state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenian Football Federation, backed by Armenia’s government, wants the two fixtures scheduled for September 2007 to be played in Baku and Yerevan. However, its Azerbaijani counterparts are categorically against this, saying that they can not guarantee the security of Armenian players and coaching staff and that the games should therefore take place in third countries. They also say that the very fact of Armenians arriving in Azerbaijan would be an affront to the memory of Azerbaijanis killed during the Karabakh conflict.
Speaking to reporters on the second day of his visit to Yerevan, UEFA’s CEO Lars-Christer Olsson said holding the politically charged matches in the Armenian and Azerbaijani capitals could in fact contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. “We have a special group in our executive committee which will look into the matter,” Olsson said. “They will visit Armenia and Azerbaijan in the beginning of May and try to see if we can find a solution.”
“Perhaps through the matches between Azerbaijan and Armenia we could make the first step in the peace process,” he added.
“Armenia is ready to host the game with Azerbaijan and guarantee the security of its players,” the Armenian Football Federation chairman, Ruben Hayrapetian, reiterated for his part. “We are also ready to travel to Azerbaijan and play there. However, the Azerbaijanis are still refusing to receive us.”
The unresolved conflict already thwarted a major game between the top football clubs of Armenia and Azerbaijan as recently as in January. Neftchi Baku and Pyunik Yerevan were due to play each other in the semi-finals of the annual CIS Cup held in Moscow. The Armenian team, which is sponsored by Hayrapetian, unexpectedly pulled out of the clash, citing the Russian organizers’ failure to guarantee the security of its players. The move was widely denounced by Armenian soccer fans and media.
(Photolur photo: Olsson, left, and Hayrapetian inaugurating a UEFA-funded football pitch for children in Yerevan.)