By Ruben Meloyan
International soccer’s two top executives pledged on Tuesday to ensure that Armenian and Azerbaijani teams are spared the need to play against each other in official competitions.
Visiting Yerevan, Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, football’s worldwide governing organization, and Michel Platini of UEFA, a similar body for Europe, argued that the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict makes it extremely difficult to organize such games. They pointed to the recent failure by Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on the venue for planned matches between their national teams.
The two teams were due to face each after being drawn into Group A of the qualifying competition for the 2008 European football championship. The Armenian Football Federation, backed by the Yerevan government, insisted that the potentially tense matches, scheduled for September 2007, be played in Baku and Yerevan. Its Azerbaijani counterpart was categorically against this, saying that it can not guarantee the security of Armenian players and coaching staff on its territory and pushing for a neutral venue.
The two sides failed to find a mutually acceptable solution after a series of negotiations, leading UEFA to cancel the two fixtures in June.
Platini defended the extraordinary decision, saying that Armenia and Azerbaijan should not have been drawn into the same group in the first place. “It was so easy for the [UEFA] Executive Committee to find a way of ensuring that Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t play in the same group,” he said.
Platini said that UEFA will now keep apart the two national teams as well as other Armenian and Azerbaijani soccer clubs. The football body has also asked FIFA to follow suit, he added.
“This may not be the best solution,” the French football legend told reporters. “But we looked into the matter for a long time, and this what experts advised us to do.”
Blatter agreed, saying that FIFA will make sure that Armenia and Azerbaijan are placed in different groups during their upcoming qualifying campaigns for the 2010 soccer World Cup in Germany. The draw for the World Bank qualifiers will take place in Durban, South Africa next month.
Blatter and Platini arrived in Yerevan as part of their joint tour of the three South Caucasus nations. The two men met President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and AFF Chairman Ruben Hayrapetian to discuss government efforts to promote the game in Armenia. They will proceed to Azerbaijan later this week.
(Photolur photo: Blatter greeted at a children's football school in Yerevan.)