Armenia's long wrestle for success
Armenia played their first game in 1992
Club side Ararat Erevan put Armenian football on the map in the 1970s
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the national team’s all-time leading scorer
With all its dramas and turmoil, the 20th century was not kind on Armenia, where sport and football were far from a priority. The country nevertheless emerged from it all with a resilience and strength that can also be found in its clubs and national team.
The number one sport in Armenia is wrestling, which is not very surprising when you consider that eight of the 16 Olympic medals the nation has won in its history have come in the sport, including its only two gold medals. Weightlifting with seven and boxing with one account for the rest of the country’s medal haul.
But what of football? Nicknamed the Havaqakan ('The Squad'), Armenia’s national team has yet to appear at the FIFA World Cup™ or UEFA EURO finals, but it has had its moments over the years.
A decade of success
Armenian football had its first taste of success in the 1970s, when the country formed part of the USSR. Flying the flag for Armenia at the time were Ararat Erevan. Founded in 1935, the club from the capital brought an end to the long period of domination enjoyed by the heavyweights of Ukraine and Russia. Between 1936 and 1965, the Moscow quartet of Dynamo, Spartak, CSKA and Torpedo won all but two Soviet league championships, before Dynamo Kiev took over, winning six titles between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.
Ararat Yerevan muscled their way in to win the league in 1973, a season in which they also lifted the Soviet Cup to complete a remarkable double. Their success came as a complete shock. Not only were Ararat relative outsiders, they also played the game in a different way to their rivals. Unlike the big Kiev and Moscow teams, who were all about tactical discipline and quick passing, the Ararat players were encouraged by their coach Nikita Simonyan to express themselves and dribble with the ball. Working together as a team, they had no true star players.
Ararat also enjoyed success further afield. In the 1974/75 European Cup they knocked out Viking FK of Norway in the first round and Cork Celtic in the second to earn a quarter-final tie against a mighty Bayern Munich side led by Franz Beckenbauer and containing a clutch of World Cup winners from Germany 1974. Though Bayern – the eventual champions – won 2-1 on aggregate, the Armenians nevertheless claimed a memorable 1-0 victory in the second leg.
Challenges and a new talisman
With the fall of the USSR, Armenia had to rebuild on a political and economic level. It was also a fresh start for the country's football. The Armenian Football Federation was founded in 1992 and joined FIFA straightaway, while the national league was set up that same year. It has since largely been dominated by Pyunik Erevan, who have 14 titles to their name.
The league’s representatives in Europe enjoyed their finest hours in the early 2000s, winning regularly in the UEFA Cup (the predecessor of the Europa League) and even scoring some notable successes in the preliminary rounds of the UEFA Champions League. They have struggled to make an impact since then however. Several clubs have gone out of business and Armenian sides competing in Europe have lost to teams from Andorra and Gibraltar.
In contrast, the national team has never had such a high profile, which it owes in large part to midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The 31-year-old starred with Shakhtar Donetsk between 2010 and 2013 before excelling in a three-year stay with Borussia Dortmund and then moving on to Manchester United, Arsenal and current club Roma. In that time, Mkhitaryan has become the star of Armenian football, winning 86 caps for his country – making him the third-most capped player in the history of The Havaqakan – and scoring 29 goals to become their leading scorer.
The national team has had their ups and downs, however. After many years occupying one of the bottom two places in their EURO and World Cup qualifying groups, Armenia embarked on a new era when the Scot Ian Porterfield was appointed coach in 2006. Wins over Kazakhstan and Poland followed, while Portugal were held to a draw. But when Porterfield died from cancer at the age of 61, that little run of success came to an abrupt end.
Armenia would have to wait until the EURO 2012 qualifying competition before punching above their weight again, finishing third in their group, ahead of Slovakia. That fine campaign helped the national team reach their all-time FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking high of 30th in February 2014.
While Armenia have still to appear at a major international competition, they are hopeful that the new infrastructure they have put in place will help them put that record straight soon. The country opened a national training centre in 2010 and a football academy in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Republican Stadium in Yerevan, where they play their home games, has just been renovated. All in all, the future promises to be a brighter one for Armenian football, which can be guaranteed, come what may, to keep on fighting for success.
This article is part of the 'Global Game' series, which focuses on football in regions away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to the Isle of Wight.