Armenia will not forget the events of last week in a hurry. The landlocked state in the Caucasus, nestling between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey, finally put itself on the European footballing map with two memorable wins.
The tiny, mountainous country only has around three million inhabitants and, up until September 1991, belonged to the former Soviet Union. On the first Saturday of this month, they finally wrote a new page in their footballing history with a 2-1 win in Kazakhstan in a UEFA European Championship 2008 qualifier - their first victory in six attempts in Group A. Fans celebrated, but not in their wildest dreams did they imagine what was to happen four days later in the capital's Republic Stadium. Scotsman John Porterfield, more widely known as Ian, guided his troops to an incredible 1-0 win over red-hot favourites Poland, sparking jubilant scenes on the streets of Yerevan after the final whistle.
Poland are vying for a top-two qualifying spot in the group and include such stars as Borussia Dortmund's Euzebiusz Smolarek and Marek Saganowski of English Championship outfit Southampton, making victory all the sweeter. Armenia leapt up to fifth spot in the table with seven points, level with Belgium and with a game in hand. However, this result means more than just points on the board, and will go down in the annals of Armenian football.
Armenia's reputation now stretches beyond European borders. These two wins have seen them climb up to 80th spot in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking - a jump of 48 places. This is the country's second highest-ever placing, second only to September 2000, when they were one place higher in 79th. Porterfield's men achieved the biggest jump up the ladder last month.
These two victories were only the seventh and eighth in meaningful matches for Armenia. Indeed, up until Porterfield's arrival, the Armenian Football Association's (FFA) crowning glory was a goalless draw in Norway in a 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ qualifier on 2 September 2000. The 61-year-old Scot took over the reins ten months ago and his tenure bears all the hallmarks of a new era in Armenian football.
Porterfield is a battler - both on and off the field. He originally took on the Armenia job in April 2006, only to resign due to his struggle with bowel cancer, making the team's recent run of success all the more satisfying. "We were absolutely rock-solid against Poland," he smiled. "That's how we managed to achieve what we had only previously dreamed of. Our opponents had a much better squad at their disposal, but we had the passion to combat that."
The team everyone wants to avoid
While Porterfield has enjoyed top-flight management with Scottish side Aberdeen, as well as London giants Chelsea, he is also used to taking the role of the underdog. As an international coach, he can point to spells coaching Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Trinidad and Tobago, and is already seen as a conquering hero by the Armenians. "In a short space of time, Porterfield has managed to instil a winning mentality in the team," explained Ashot Manukyan, vice-president of the FFA. "Now we're looking forward to a bright future for football here in our country."
With players of the calibre of keeper Gevorg Kasparov and striker Hamlet Mkhitaryan, who scored the winner against the Poles, this optimism appears to be well-founded. Both played major roles in the two wins, particularly 26-year-old Kasparov, upon whom the hopes of a nation now rest. Time is running a little tighter for Mkhitaryan, who is seven years his senior, but he still has his eyes fixed firmly on the future, and 22 August in particular. Portugal will be the visitors in Yerevan, and Kasparov and his team-mates are keen to enhance their reputation as the kind of team the big boys want to avoid.