By Astghik Bedevian
Turkish fans will not after all flock to Yerevan for Saturday’s landmark match between the national football teams of Armenia and Turkey, the chairman of the Armenian Football Federation (FFA) said on Tuesday.
The development will spare the Armenian government a major security headache during Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s anticipated presence at the soccer World Cup qualifier which the two nations hope to use for improving their strained relations.
Under the rules of world football’s governing body, FIFA, a country hosting a World Cup match must set aside at least 5 percent of stadium seats for traveling fans. The Hrazdan stadium, the largest in Armenia, has a capacity of more than 51,000 seats, meaning that at least 2,500 Turks are entitled to cheering for their team there.
The FFA and the Yerevan government have repeatedly expressed their readiness to comply with the FIFA requirement and receive a large number of Turkey fans. To that end the government decided last month to waive visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting Armenia from September 1-6.
“The Turkish Football Federation has officially said that their football fans will not be coming here,” the FFA chairman, Ruben Hayrapetian. “They have only asked for tickets for 115 members of the Turkish delegation and another 15 tickets for VIPs.” The game will also be covered by as many as 100 Turkish journalists, he said.
President Serzh Sarkisian invited Gul to visit and Yerevan and watch the game in June amid fresh hopes for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Turkish officials and media reported at the weekend that Gul has accepted the invitation and will officially notify Sarkisian about that this week.
A Turkish government delegation headed by Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Unal Cevikoz was due to arrive in Yerevan late Tuesday to discuss details of the historic trip with Armenian officials. A spokesman for Sarkisian, Samvel Farmanian, told RFE/RL that Cevikoz will meet the Armenian president on Wednesday. He also confirmed that the Turkish delegation comprises members of Gul’s security detail who will assess security arrangements at Hrazdan.
Hayrapetian said the FFA has decided to ban Armenian soccer fans from bringing banners referring to the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire and other “political” issues into the stadium. “Only football-related placards will be allowed there,” he said. “A victory for Armenia would send a much stronger message that a few banners.”
Hayrapetian also said Armenian football players and their Danish coach, Jan Poulsen, will be rewarded handsomely if they manage to beat one of Europe’s strongest teams. But he did not reveal the amount of the promised bonuses.
The Turks finished third in the recent European Football Championship and hold 13th place in FIFA’s global rankings of national teams. Armenia is only 94th in the rankings.
(Photolur photo: Ruben Hayrapetian.)