By Kevin O’Flynn
Politics intruded on the Commonwealth Cup on Thursday when Armenian side Pyunik refused to play against Azeri champion Neftchi Baku in the semifinal of the tournament.
The Yerevan side, which had never reached the semifinals of the once-respected Moscow competition between the champions of the 15 former Soviet republics, flew back to Armenia early Thursday after saying it would not play Neftchi in the semi set on Friday, citing security concerns.
Pyunik and Neftchi met in the quarterfinals of the cup last year in a match marred by fighting on the pitch as well as in the stands, the vice president of Pyunik, Karen Aryutyunyan, told Sovietsky Sport on Thursday.
The Russian Football Union in a statement Thursday afternoon slammed the Armenian side for refusing to play.
“Such actions are not becoming of football,” said the statement, “which is supposed to unite and not separate athletes, fans, countries and people. With their action, they have disappointed thousands of fans.”
International relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain tense following a three-year war in the 1990s over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The two national teams played out a draw in an under-17 tournament in Macedonia, said a spokesman for the Armenian Football Federation. He added that Armenia finished at the top of the group and qualified but Azerbaijan did not.
The Russian Football Union said it would have guaranteed security for Pyunik, but its withdrawal put a question mark over the team’s future participation in the cup.
Armenian and Azeri teams often met in the top Soviet league, last playing each other in 1988. The game took place as tensions ran high between the countries, and so the game was moved to Volgograd. It passed off peacefully, without any yellow cards issued.
Some suspect that Pyunik may have been worried more about losing on the pitch than about security off it. Neftchi is much the stronger team, having reached the final last year, and would have been favorite to win. Now, Neftchi will play either CSKA Moscow or Lithuanian champion Kaunas in the final on Sunday at the Olimpiisky Sports Complex.
The Commonwealth Cup, now in its 14th year, has lost what glamour it had in the 1990s, when world-class players like current AC Milan striker Andrei Shevchenko turned out for Dynamo Kiev and the cup was more of a battle between Valery Lobanovsky’s Dynamo and Oleg Romantsev’s Spartak.
This year, Russian champions CSKA Moscow and Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk both sent their reserve sides to the cup, which has no prize money for the winner.
Both teams will field their strongest sides in Israel next month in the new multimillion-dollar tournament funded by Roman Abramovich.