BY ROBERT O’CONNOR Special to Asbarez
Some came to confront the past.
Hiratch Yagan is bruised and emotional. He hasn’t bothered to shower, or even to change out of his soiled royal blue and white strip. There will be time for that later, and the hurt is still too fresh.
Inside the adjacent clubhouse, 18 jubilant men in all white swill beer and sing songs, the defiant refrains of victory. Yagan barely glances up, passing by them without a word, his eyes fixed on the ground.
Yagan shoulders a great responsibility. That his teammates are here, representing the disenfranchised Armenians of eastern Turkey at the ConIFA World Football Cup in London, is all because of him.
It was his idea, in 2014, upon learning of the existence of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, to reach out to the diaspora community of Armenians in Europe, in the hope of building a team to compete alongside the dozens of peoples around the world similarly dispossessed by the invisible hand of history.
Born in Brussels, Yagan lives as an expat in Nyon, Switzerland. There, he competes for third-tier outfit Stade Nyonaise. The club plays on the very doorstep of UEFA headquarters, European football’s governing body that dictates who may and may not join the European football family. For Western Armenia, as with the other 15 teams competing here in London, no such recognition is forthcoming.
“This isn’t about being separate from Armenia,” Yagan said. “It’s about defending the land of my fathers and my grandfathers. The Treaty of Sevres says that these lands in what is called Turkey belong to Armenia.”
Those lands about which a sweat-drenched Yagan speaks are the historic Armenian lands that were partitioned to the first Armenian republic of 1918, during the chaotic aftermath of the First World War. As Eurasia slowly reconfigured itself from amongst the wreckage of the last great empires, the victorious allies, led by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, sought to lay the blueprint for the early ‘nation’ states in Europe.
In Transcaucasia, this meant collecting the great bulk of the Armenian people living in the defeated Ottoman Empire into one state, resembling something like the ancient kingdom of Armenia. The borders of Wilsonian Armenia were secured by the Treaty of Sevres, one of a great volume of territorial agreements via which the allies sought to impose a lasting peace on the world.
Today, the irredentist concept of Wilsonian Armenia is largely confined to history. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, chaired by Garabid Kevorkyan, are the only group with any standing that still makes serious reference to the idea of uniting historic Armenian lands.
In the early days of the football project, fortune played a part. The same week as Yagan was made aware of ConIFA’s work, the organization’s president, the Swede Per-Anders Blind, happened to be in Geneva on business, just a 30-minute train hop from Yagan’s home in Nyon. A meeting was arranged, and the cogs were put in motion for Western Armenia to join the ranks of world football’s ‘other’ governing body.
Yagan won’t disclose the name of the backer who has helped the Western Armenia team to London, hinting only that he is the same philanthropist who provided the funding of the recently completed Artsakh national stadium in Stepanakert.
“He is a great Armenian, a friend of my father, living in Switzerland who has helped many causes close to the Armenian people and the diaspora,” Yagan said.
There has been support, too, from those affiliated with the Football Federation of Armenia. Former Armenia national team captain, Harutyun Vardanyan, leads the delegation here in London as head coach.
The diaspora is wide. There are 1.2million Armenians living in France alone, so much so that the team’s training sessions are conducted in French, with players drawn from Paris, Marseilles and Lyon. That reach is partly down to Yagan’s background, but the team has also drawn on talent from the lower leagues in Germany, Slovakia and Ukraine. A clutch of players play back home for clubs in the Armenian Premier League.
“We’ve had requests from players in Argentina, Australia, but right now we don’t have the budget to bring them over,” Yagan said.
This is, in truth, not elite-level football. Some things, though, do not change, regardless of the level. Sometimes, football is just football.
“The referees have been bad since the beginning of the tournament,” Yagan said at the end of the team’s 4–0 defeat to Szekely Land, which ended any hope of being crowned ConIFA’s world champion.
Western Armenia defender Raffi Kaya was sent off after only eight minutes, leaving the team to soldier on bravely with ten men against an athletic, powerful opponent.
“The red card killed the team. When you have bad referees making bad decisions, it creates tension during the game. When the referee can’t control the game, it’s not ok for anyone,” Yagan said.
“We’ll be back in two years to compete again, but ConIFA must grow up on a lot of things. Not just referees, but also with their rules. But we must grow up together. We made mistakes too, it’s human. We must learn from it and grow together,” he added.
Their conquerors, Szekely Land, went on to finish fourth in the tournament, which was won by a side representing Karpatalja, the Hungarians of western Ukraine, after a penalty shoot-out victory over Northern Cyprus in the final.
Despite a nod to a subversive, alternative kind of politics, this has been, at heart, a clear celebration of football. Winning here matters. The Western Armenia coach, Araik Adamian, was dismissed from the touchline midway through the second half of the quarter-final for grappling with a Szekely Land supporter, and was forced to watch the remainder of his team’s surrender from the stands.
“The red card killed us,” Adamian said of what was a hot-blooded game. “We had many players injured and missing today, so it was difficult.
“But football has played a very big role in helping the world to know about Western Armenia,” he added. “That’s why we do this. This team is only just getting started, we’ve only been going two years. We will improve.”
Adamian is optimistic about the teams future potential.
“Soon, Western Armenia will be one of the best teams in ConIFA,” Adamian said.
In the first round group stages, Western Armenia played out a draw with the United Koreans of Japan, the heirs of those that fled war on the Korean peninsula, before surprising 2016’s runners-up and tournament favorites Panjab, representing the India-Pakistan borderlands, with a 1–0 win.
Progression was assured with a 4–0 rout of Kabylia, the Berber race from the Atlas Mountains who have fought against massive pressure from Algerian state police just to be in London.
Nobody said swimming against the current would be easy.
“We operate on a donation basis,” Yagan said of his organization’s thread-bear resources. “People put in money and they get to sit on the Western Armenia football board for one year. It helps us to do our activities but also is a connection between the Armenian people and the team.”
The ConIFA championship is a football festival like no other. It is international football gone rogue, an unyielding defiance of the status quo. Here, the geopolitical map is ripped up and redrawn.
“I don’t like to talk about these lands as being Turkey. There is so much historical proof that these our lands. We play for the legacy of those that died,” Yagan said.
Yagan’s attentions now turn to matters of domestic football. This autumn, a first-ever national league championship will begin in Artsakh, founded and directed by the young Belgian national, alongside his anonymous partner in Yerevan.
The tournament will operate on an amateur basis, but Yagan is hopeful that, over time, sufficient growth can occur throughout football in Artsakh to allow the league to blossom into something more professional.
Without the financial backing provided by UEFA or world governing body FIFA, on which the operations of Europe’s smaller football associations rely, the organizers look likely to have a long road ahead of them to professionalize.