By Suren Musayelyan
With the official start of the 2005 football season in Armenia less than two weeks away, many observers believe it will become a crucial stage in the development of the country’s number one sport.
The season that will open with the first round of the Armenian Cup on March 8 will continue on April 12 when nine clubs (unlike eight in 2004) will embark on a two-stage tournament to decide the winner.
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The Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) has decided to allow Gyumri’s Shirak, which finished last in the 2004 championship and was to be relegated, to play on in the premier league saying that “Gyumri is too important a city for Armenian football not to have a team in the top division.”
The tournament will take place according to the following pattern: nine teams will play each other home and away and then split into two groups. The first six teams will continue to battle for the title, while the bottom three will enter playoffs with the runners-up from the lower division. The champion of Division One will win automatic promotion and thus next year’s premier league will have ten clubs.
Armenia’s champions FC Pyunik remain a strong favorite in the coming season as well. The title-holders had an active preseason having participated in the Commonwealth Cup in Moscow in January and currently taking part in an international tournament in Tashkent (Uzbekistan).
The Yerevan side began well in the Moscow tournament but failed to impress towards the end. They beat a strong Latvian side, Skonto, and managed to qualify from their group only to lose to Baku’s Neftchi in a highly politicized quarterfinal.
The international tournaments resulted in intensified transfer activity in the Yerevan side and many of the club’s talented players are currently on trial with other clubs.
FC Pyunik coach Vardan Minasyan is currently looking to reinforce his team ahead of the new season. “We need to bring in new quality players to defend our title,” he said in this regard.
Meanwhile, FC Pyunik’s main rivals, FC Mika of Ashtarak, are actively reinforcing their side too. Last year’s runners-up in the Armenian league recently participated in an eight-team international tournament in Ashgabad (Turkmenistan) – Turkmenbashi Cup – where they finished fourth losing 2-3 to FC Aviator of Tajikistan in the match for 3rd place.
Among other clubs who might challenge the title-holders are FC Banants of Yerevan and FC Kotayk of Abovyan. The former have a new coach, Ararat-73 star Hovhannes Zanazayan, and a few new signings, including players from Moldova and Georgia, while the Abovyan side are reported to have found Iranian sponsors to support their 2005 campaign.
While international football will come for the clubs only in the middle of summer when Pyunik, Mika and Banants will try to win the right to progress to the late stages of UEFA competitions, the Armenian national team will continue its World Cup 2006 qualifying campaign on March 26 hosting Andorra.
Armenia’s last match against Romania in November raised hopes among fans for a better performance in 2005. It was after that match that Armenia’s teenage talents and teammates from FC Pyunik Edgar Manucharyan and goalkeeper Apoula Edima Edel Bete (both are 18 years old) were approached by scouts from leading European clubs.
Armenia’s best player of 2004, Manucharyan, was trialed by Ajax in December but a foot injury after 14 minutes of play in a friendly against FC Barcelona made him unfit for three months.
FFA press officer Arayik Manukyan confirmed that Manucharyan would remain in Amsterdam where he is being treated by the club’s doctors, hoping to be signed once he has recovered.
“Manucharyan’s post-traumatic treatment at Ajax is passing successfully and he is on his way to recovery,” he said. “He continues to train with the club according to a special system, working on his uninjured foot.”
But according to Manukyan, the striker is unlikely to participate in Armenia’s upcoming qualifiers against Andorra and the Netherlands. “It is difficult to say with certainty at this stage whether he will be fit enough to take part in those matches or not,” he said. “It will be up to the doctors to decide immediately before the matches. But in all likelihood he will be fit only for Armenia’s qualifiers in June.”
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Manucharyan’s former teammate Bete, who has won his number 1 jersey in Armenia’s full national team, is now in France hoping to sign for French Ligue 1 side FC Girondins de Bordeaux. However, according to the FFA spokesman, it is yet unclear whether he will sign a permanent deal with the French club or not.
Another piece of alarming news for Armenia ahead of the new season came recently from Switzerland where the team’s veteran skipper Harutyun Vardanyan, playing for Arau, had injured his knee. The injury is likely to sideline him for at least half a year, which means that Armenia will not be able to use his services until autumn.
Armenia is now bottom of their group with only one point. Andorra is three points clear after holding Macedonia to a goalless draw on February 9.
On March 30, Armenia will be hosted by the strong Dutch side after which the schedule will be as follows: Macedonia (home, June 4); Romania (away June 8), the Netherlands (home, September 3), the Czech Republic (away, September 7) and Andorra (away, October 12).
If Armenia manage to gain points and finish 6th or 5th in their group it might take the team further up in the list of international rankings where it holds the 123rd place (according to the FIFA rankings as of November 2004).
But many specialists are inclined to think that it is more important for the team to play its youths and show mature football, while points are not a top priority at this stage.
FFA President Ruben Hayrapetyan sounded optimistic about the future of Armenian football at the end of last season when Armenia held Romania to a 1-1 draw in their qualifier in November. “I think we lost two points rather than gained one,” he said then. “It is the play and not the draw that are important to me. The most important thing is that footballers play selflessly.”
According to the FFA president, if the young players continue to grow at this pace Armenia will have a solid national team in three or four years’ time.
“Only patient work with the youths can ensure a bright future for Armenian football,” he said in this regard. “If we want a strong national team in a few years, we have to start the work with our young footballers now.”
According to FFA press officer Arayik Manukyan, there are 2,357 young footballers aged 14-17 registered with the country’s Football Federation today, while the total number of footballers reaches 10,000.
In contrast, he said, there were only 3-4,000 footballers of all ages registered with the Federation two years ago. “The number of young players is steadily growing and our task is to upgrade our infrastructure to accommodate to this growth,” he said.
At the same time, Manukyan attaches special importance to the establishment of a press service at the Football Federation. “No studies related to our football have been done in the past, most things were unregulated. Now we are going to bridge this gap,” he said.
According to Manukyan, the FFA will soon create and launch a new website, which will no longer be hosted on the FIFA server, but will have its own domain. “Unlike the previous one, which was a disgrace, this website will be regularly updated and will feature all the latest information and statistics related to Armenian football,” said Manukyan.
Meanwhile, football analyst Armen Nikoghosyan thinks that what is being done in Armenian football at this stage is not enough to expect progress any time soon. According to him, the number of footballers training in Armenia on all levels makes a mere 1% of the entire population, which is a way too little for a country with a rich football past.
“The percentage of footballers in medium football countries of Europe, such as Sweden or Norway, is 20-26% of their populations, while in Russia, which is not considered to be a well-developed football country, this percentage makes 10%,” he says. “Therefore I think Armenia has a lot to do in terms of creating its football base, especially nurturing young players.”
According to Nikoghosyan, one should not have any big expectations in the next several years. “Our national team should concentrate on getting the ‘smell of big football’ rather than on how to win points in the new season,” he said.