Playing in the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa, the Armenian national soccer team was beaten 2-0 by the superior Turks in front of about 19,000 passionate spectators as well as the presidents of the two mutually antagonistic countries.
Sarkisian broadly smiled and promptly congratulated his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul with handshake every time Turkey scored to seal the victory. The scene, highly unusual for heads of state attending major football games, was repeatedly replayed by Turkish television broadcasting the match to both countries.
The spokesman for Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) defended the president’s seemingly warm reaction to the Turkish goals that came after a mass jeering of Armenia’s national anthem played in Bursa’s Ataturk stadium. “He smiled because the goal was nice. He enjoyed watching football,” Eduard Sharmazanov explained at a news conference in Yerevan, sparking laughter among journalists.
Turkish football fans at the Turkey-Armenia World Cup qualifying match on October 14, 2009.
But for many Armenians disappointed with their team’s dismal performance, Sarkisian’s behavior appears to have only added insult to injury. His critics were quick to seize upon what is shaping up as another public relations setback for Yerevan’s “football diplomacy” with Ankara.
“Every Armenian who saw that footage last night will draw appropriate conclusions,” said Arman Musinian, a spokesman for the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). “I will just say that nothing else could be expected from this regime.”
“It’s hard to say what influenced Serzh Sarkisian’s hearty rejoicing of the goals conceded by our team will have on Gul and what results it will produce in terms of the ‘football diplomacy,’ but it can be asserted for certain that it has been perceived very badly in Armenia,” “Haykakan Zhamanak,” Armenia’s best-selling daily sympathetic to the HAK, wrote in a front-page article.
Hakob Badalian, a commentator for the independent online journal Lragir.am, singled out Sarkisian’s “joy” in a commentary on the Armenian president’s landmark visit to Turkey. “What was the point of rejoicing so demonstratively?” he asked. “Was he confused or took it as a good opportunity to please Gul? Either way, the scene was rather ugly.”
“Usually, presidents watching football games are very reserved if they sit next to their counterparts and, the more so, if the rival team scores,” argued Badalian.
The sentiment was echoed on the streets of Yerevan, with many people randomly interviewed by RFE/RL reacting to the episode with anger. “[Sarkisian] was very happy that the Armenians are losing,” claimed one man. “He celebrated when they scored.”
“He was happy that the Armenians lost,” agreed a middle-aged woman. “Didn’t you watch him? He liked that. I don’t know if that was diplomacy or not, but he had nothing to rejoice about.”
“He smiled too much,” observed a younger soccer fan. “I do understand that he had to stick to the etiquette. But he should have been a bit more reserved in congratulating [Gul.]”