By Claire Bigg
Armenia and Azerbaijan were set to square off today for a semifinal soccer match in the Commonwealth Cup being played in Moscow. But the Armenians refused to play, claiming Russia had failed to give them proper security guarantees. The Russian Football Union, however, says the team’s withdrawal may have more to do with politics than with security.
Moscow, 20 January 2006 (RFE/RL) — Soccer fans in former Soviet countries will remember the 2006 edition of the Commonwealth Cup as the first time a team withdrew from the Moscow tournament since its creation in 1993.
The cup brings together the league champions from all 15 former Soviet republics. And while it may have lost much of the prestige it enjoyed in the 1990s, it nonetheless remains a respected soccer competition in the region.
Karen Harutyunian, the deputy president of this year’s Armenian champion, Pyunik Yerevan, told a press conference yesterday that the team decided to withdraw because it feared for the safety of its players.
Scuffles erupted last year at the Commonwealth Cup quarterfinal match between Pyunik and the Azerbaijani team, Neftchi Baku. The Azerbaijani champions won the 2005 cup match by a score of 2:0 — and were to meet on the pitch again this year.
Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been frosty, at best, since the early 1990s, when they fought a bloody three-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh — the predominantly ethnic Armenian exclave within Azerbaijan that seceded from the then-Soviet republic in 1988. Despite signing a cease-fire, both countries are still formally at war.
Harutyunian said Russia had failed to guarantee the safety of the Armenian team in the face of what he described as numerous threats from Azerbaijanis.
“Still at the Pyunik-Shakhtyor match, many Azerbaijani fans had shouted insults and threatened to kill and take vengeance,” Harutyunian said. “All Russian-language Azerbaijani Internet sites were also full of similar threats. We have information that many Moscow-based Armenians and Azerbaijanis prepare to repeat last year’s events. After not receiving written guarantees on security issues — fully understanding the value of the game as a sports event and foreseeing all possible reactions — we decided not to play. We made this decision in order not to politicize the game, to avoid possible provocations, to prevent danger to Armenian players, Armenian fans, and Armenian nationals in Moscow.”
The date on which the match was set to take place likely fuelled Pyunik’s fears — as it falls on a particularly sensitive date in Armenian- Azerbaijani relations.
On 20 January 1990, the Soviet leadership sent troops into the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to repress civilian unrest. The crackdown, in which more than 100 civilians were killed, is commemorated every year by Azerbaijanis as “Black January.”
The Armenian team’s pull-out from the tournament stirred up a storm of accusations from both Russian and Azerbaijani observers.
The Azerbaijani press today lashed out at the Armenian players, branding them “cowards” and calling their withdrawal a “scandal.”
The Russian Football Union also harshly condemned the move and warned that Pyunik could well be barred from participating in next year’s Commonwealth Cup.
“Such actions do not befit football, which should bring athletes, fans, countries and people together, not pull them apart,” Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s soccer chief, said in statement released yesterday. “With their action, they have disappointed thousands of fans.”
Many blame the Armenians for mixing politics with sports by refusing to play with Azerbaijanis.
For Igor Vladimirov, a spokesman for the Russian Football Union, Pyunik’s withdrawal carries clear political undertones.
“Allegedly they were not provided adequate security, and I know they complained about accommodation and food,” Vladimirov said. “In our opinion, these were simply excuses not to play with the Azerbaijani team. Objectively, in terms of sport, Neftchi was stronger in this tournament, and obviously the Armenians were to proud to lose to Azerbaijanis.”
The Armenian Football Union, however, appears to have denied responsibility for the incident. Vladimirov said the Armenian Football Union told Mutko that Pyunik acted without consulting the union.
The incident unfolded against the background of talks between the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in London. Yesterday, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian announced that the two countries’ leaders would meet next month in France to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.