Vartan Minasian, the head coach of Armenia’s national soccer team, has expressed delight at a nationwide jubilation sparked by its surprisingly strong performance in the qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Football Championship.
In a weekend interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), he also sounded optimistic about its future, saying that the squad will be bolstered by more young and promising players in the coming years.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Minasian. “But I can promise one thing. Each of us -- footballers, coaches and managers -- will do our best and work in a professional manner.
“I can’t tell for sure how it all will end. But I’m optimistic. Doing a particular job without optimism is meaningless.”
Armenia, which was not even in the top 100 in the world team rankings in the not-so-distant past, finished third in Group B of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign that comprised six teams, including the more highly rated Russia, Ireland and Slovakia. In what was its best performance to date, it won five of the ten qualifiers, drew two others and scored more goals than any of its group opponents.
Three of those wins, including a 4-0 away drubbing of Slovakia, came in quick succession in September and early October, sparking overnight wild celebrations on the streets of Yerevan. They prompted parallels with 1973 when the football club Ararat Yerevan won the Soviet football championship and the Soviet Cup.
The Euro 2012 campaign, which began in September 2010, has also resulted in a sharp increase in popular interest in the game, which had visibly declined since the Soviet collapse. President Serzh Sarkisian spoke of “national rebirth” and held up the team’s players as role models in a speech before young people last week.
Speaking at RFE/RL’s Yerevan Bureau, Minasian, 37, likewise asserted that the run of good results has engendered a spirit of national unity and pride that has overshadowed many problems facing the country.
“Football has a great social impact,” said the soft-spoken coach. “It’s a social phenomenon and we can see that now. It can make people forget their day-to-day problems and rally around one idea.”
“The same happens during wars when nations rally around a common cause. Football now has the same power, judging from what is happening in our republic and the Diaspora.”
“In terms of style, Armenia are probably the most potentially exciting side to emerge since Denmark in the early 1980s,” a football commentator for Britain’s “The Guardian” daily wrote ahead of the team’s last qualifier against the Republic of Ireland that was played in Dublin on October 11.
Armenia needed a victory to finish second and make the playoffs but they controversially lost 2-1. The Irish scored twice after Armenian goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky was wrongly sent off by Spanish referee Eduardo Gonzalez. The latter compounded his error by allowing play to continue when it appeared Irish striker Simon Cox handled the ball moments before the goalkeeper was wrongly adjudged to have done so outside his area.
The Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) has filed an official protest to UEFA, European soccer’s governing body. It wants UEFA to cancel Berezovsky’s red card, rather than replay the game or even punish the referee.
Minasian agreed with the FFA’s stance. “We can’t even talk about having the game replayed,” he said. “The only thing we can achieve is to have that red card cancelled. If they do that, they will admit that the referee made a mistake.”
Unlike furious football fans in Armenia, the normally reserved and serene coach refrained from blaming Gonzalez for the defeat. “I have worked as coach for five or six years and have never commented on refereeing decisions and I hope I will never have to do that,” he said.
Minasian also dismissed a conspiracy theory that UEFA decided to ensure Ireland’s victory at any cost to balance out France striker Thierry Henry's infamous handball that cost the Irish the chance of reaching the 2010 World Cup finals. “This is just speculation and I don’t think we should pick it up,” he said.
“If Ireland had lost in such a manner, they would be calling for a replay,” “The Irish Independent” daily wrote after the match. “Instead, the emotional Armenian coach, Vartan Minasian, delivered a brief address wishing Ireland good luck in the play-offs and stressing how proud he was of his team.”
The current Armenian team was built by Minasian around several young players plying their trade in foreign clubs. The most prominent of them are the 22-year-old attacking midfielder Henrik Mkhitarian of the Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk and Yura Movsisian, the 24-year-old U.S.-Armenian striker playing for Russia’s FC Krasnodar.
Minasian said they will be joined by a new and younger generation of players in the near future. “When I look at our Under-21, Under-19 and Under-17 teams, I can see that a new generation [of footballers] is coming up and … in around five years from now we will have fewer problems because three or four players will be competing for each position,” he explained. “When you have more choice, you also get a better quality.”
Armenia’s next soccer adventure will begin in the fall of 2012 with the start of the qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Minasian’s side was drawn into an arguably stronger group comprising European football powerhouses such as Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Minasian acknowledged the enormity of the next task facing his young charges and the burden of heightened expectations weighing upon them now. “We have very serious work to do,” he said.