By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian Football Federation (AFF) on Monday expressed regret at the weekend decision by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to cancel planned matches between the national teams of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The two teams were due to face each other after being drawn into Group A of the qualifying competition for the 2008 European football championship. Their head-to-head matches, scheduled for this September, were certain to arouse nationalist passions in both South Caucasus states that remain in a state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The AFF, backed by Armenia’s government, has insisted all along that the potentially tense games be played in Baku and Yerevan. However, its Azerbaijani counterparts have been categorically against this, saying that they can not guarantee the security of Armenian players and coaching staff and pushing for neutral venues. They have also said that the very fact of Armenians arriving in Azerbaijan would be an affront to the memory of Azerbaijanis killed during the Karabakh conflict.
UEFA’s repeated attempts to get the two federations to find a mutually acceptable solution have failed.
"As no suitable compromise could be found between the two associations it was decided to cancel the two matches, namely Azerbaijan-Armenia scheduled for September 8 and Armenia-Azerbaijan scheduled for September 12," UEFA said in a statement following a meeting of its executive committee in the Netherlands. "It was decided to award both associations zero points for the matches."
“I regret that we lost an opportunity to see the [two] matches of our team whose play is becoming stronger and more spectacular day by day,” the AFF chairman, Ruben Hayrapetian, said in a statement. He stressed that the Armenian side was always ready to hold one of the games in Yerevan “at the highest level” and to send its team to Baku.
Significantly, Hayrapetian, who is also a senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, made it clear that the AFF will not challenge UEFA’s “unprecedented” decision in an international arbitration body.
Hayrapetian had earlier threatened to take UEFA to court, arguing that the Geneva-based body’s statutes obligate all member states to host football games on their territory and take adequate security measures for that purpose. Armenia was only prepared to play its away game with Azerbaijan in a neutral ground.
The match cancellation, by contrast, was welcomed by Azerbaijan. “UEFA made the right decision,” Azerbaijan Minister on Youth and Sport Affairs Azad Rahimov said, according to the Regnum news agency. “Frankly, that decision was unexpected for us.”
Azerbaijan is bottom of the Euro 2008 Group A with five points from eight matches, while Armenia has seven points from seven outings. The Armenians won their last two games played earlier this month, moving up to the 80th place in worldwide rankings of national teams that are issued by the game’s worldwide governing body, FIFA. Their 1-0 shock victory in Yerevan over group leaders Poland marked the national team’s biggest achievement yet.
Armenia’s cancer-stricken Scottish coach, Ian Porterfield, is widely credited with the two-game winning streak.
(Photolur photo: Porterfield celebrates Armenia's victory over Poland.)