Armenia on a high
© AFP

After jumping no fewer than 45 places to reach their highest ever position of 60th, Armenia were without doubt the most impressive risers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

"We had a lot of problems after the fall of the Soviet Union, but now the time has come for football to regain its dominance in our country," said national team coach Vardan Minasyan a few weeks ago in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.

Recent results provide a clear indication of Armenia's steady progress. Despite a 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland and a 2-2 draw with FYR Macedonia in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying back in September, the nation of three million inhabitants were soon celebrating consecutive victories. Most impressive was the 3-1 win against 2010 FIFA World Cup™ participants Slovakia, before a 4-0 triumph against Andorra followed four days later.

Armenia are now third in the Group B table on seven points, behind Russia (nine) and the Republic of Ireland (also seven). "Our team is very young. My primary goal is to steadily improve the quality of our game and bring a certain amount of consistency to our performances," said Minasyan in light of his side's recent upturn in fortunes.

Minasyan put the defeat to the Irish down to "a lack of experience", while lamenting that his charges "thought they'd won the [Macedonia] game already and lost their concentration", adding that "the best team doesn't always win". Of course the Armenians bounced back from those disappointments with an impressive win against Slovakia, adding weight to the coach's assertion that while they "always respect our opponents, we're never afraid".

Our team is very young. My primary goal is to steadily improve the quality of our game and bring a certain amount of consistency.
Armenia coach Vardan Minasyan

The 36-year-old tactician took over the national side in March 2009. "It's a great honour to be national coach and I'm very proud. It's a big responsibility to represent your country around the world." The former international midfielder, who spent time in Switzerland (Lausanne), Russia (Lokomotiv St. Petersburg) and Armenia (Pyunik Yerevan) as a player, replaced Jan Poulsen at the helm after the Danish tactician failed to steer the side to qualification for South Africa 2010. In a group with eventual world champions Spain, Armenia managed a solitary 2-1 victory against Belgium and a 2-2 draw with Estonia to finish bottom of the standings.

However, things are looking far more positive in qualifying for EURO 2012, with many Armenians already beginning to dream of a first ever appearance at a major tournament. Since their foundation as a nation in 1992 and subsequent FIFA membership, Armenia have yet to reach a FIFA World Cup or UEFA European Championship.

Their first attempt at qualifying was for France 1998, but one victory and five draws were not enough to lift them above fourth place in their section, though they did finish ahead of Northern Ireland and Albania. Armenia's subsequent two qualification campaigns also ended in disappointment.

The eastern Europeans did however manage to cause a couple of upsets on the road to EURO 2008. Though they failed to qualify for the final tournament in Austria/Switzerland, they registered a surprise 1-0 victory over Poland and an even more impressive 1-1 draw with group favourites Portugal.

Armenia have also made strides away from the pitch, winning the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2008 along with Turkey. Both associations had made extensive efforts to encourage talks between the two nations in spite of lingering diplomatic tensions.

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan subsequently invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul for an eight-hour meeting in Yerevan, where the two enjoyed the South Africa 2010 qualifier between the two nations together.

In future, Armenia are hoping to hit the headlines for their sporting achievements too. Vardan Minasyan and his team will have to wait until next year for their next opportunity to do so, with group leaders Russia next on the agenda on 26 March. The match will provide an important yardstick with regard to how far the Armenian national team has come, and if they can carve out a win against the qualification favourites, those dreams of a first ever major tournament appearance could soon become a reality.