Monday 15 October. The atmosphere on board the jet taking FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini to Armenia is relaxed, despite the layer of fog hanging over Switzerland which delays the take-off. Since the former French midfield maestro took over the reins at UEFA, the governing bodies of European and world football have begun to work together ever more closely - a fact illustrated on a down-to-earth level by the conversations and jokes shared by the two presidents.
A few hours later, Blatter and Platini land in Yerevan for a 24-hour visit to inaugurate a number of Goal projects before heading off to Azerbaijan. The Armenian capital is in the midst of an Indian summer - ideal weather for the two Presidents to lay the keystone of the country's second Goal project - the National Technical Centre, and to visit the 'Republican Football School'. a training centre which was built as part of Goal project I. At the inaugural dinner, the Armenian Minister for Youth and Sports Armen Grygoryan noted that "this was the first time that the Presidents of the two most important governing bodies in world football had travelled together on official business. That they should do so in Armenia is an honour for our country."
This was music to the ears of the Swiss and the Frenchman, whose main aim it is to show that football is one united family. They had a number of fruitful, no-holds-barred discussions with Mr Grygoryan and Ruben Hayrapetyan, President of the Armenian Football Federation, on such subjects as the Sotchy Olympic Games in Russia in 2014, the stadium in Donetsk for the UEFA EURO 2012, the recent performances of France and Portugal and the level of domestic football in Armenia - the kind of wide range of topics you would expect from genuine football fans.
The following morning, Messrs Blatter and Platini had an audience with the President of Armenia, Mr Robert Kocharian, and Prime Minister Mr Serzh Sargsyan. The head of the Armenian Republic was delighted with "the excellent result of the national team over Serbia recently", while the prime minister hoped that there would be a development in "football played by the masses, as this sport is part of the school of life". They were all in agreement with the FIFA and UEFA Presidents who said that "the cooperation between governmental bodies and the federation needs to carry on improving" for the good of football in Armenia.
The various dignitaries met with representatives of Armenian football for a typical lunch punctuated by a number of toasts before heading to the Coaching Centre, where the foundation stone for the Goal project II was finally laid - later than originally planned but finally underway thanks to the determination of those in charge of Armenian football. "This centre is not for the players currently exceeding all expectations in the qualifiers for the EURO but for you, the youth of the country," said Blatter to the enormous crowd of youngsters who had come to see the Presidents of FIFA and UEFA in the flesh. "Who knows, maybe we will see you at the World Cup in 2014 or 2018." "Armenians are a wonderful people," added Platini. "Charles Aznavour spoke about them in his songs and he was right."
'Football makes us better people'
Then it was on to Goal project I - the Malatia football school inaugurated in 2003. Some 700 youngsters aged between 7-17 have already attended the school and learned footballing skills within a structured environment. In Armenia, football is in a healthy state and is still the number one sport in the country, and when Messrs Blatter and Platini arrive, the school is packed to the gunwales with wide-eyed youngsters.
"I played in three World Cups and scored a lot of goals, so
here's my advice to you - anticipate, think ahead. That's
what makes you a great player," Platini told the children.
"Not everyone can grow up to be a star like Platini,"
added Blatter, "but whatever happens, football will have made
you better people. It is a sport that requires personal discipline
and respect for others."
"Enjoy the game and enjoy life," concluded the FIFA President as cheers rang out from the children and teenagers present. Then it was a dash back to the hotel for a press conference. The Armenia-Azerbaijan matches were of course discussed, as was the issue of foreign players in club football, while Blatter and Platini each reiterated the "desire of FIFA and UEFA to work together to contribute even more to the development of countries like Armenia, who are working their way up into the elite of football, as their recent results against Portugal, Poland and Serbia have proved".
Twenty four hours in Armenia were enough to see how the support provided by FIFA and UEFA is helping the development of football and the wave of hope sweeping over the country, as well as the long road still ahead of them.