Yerevan Airport is usually a pretty quiet place to be past midnight. But when Gael Andonian touched down there late one evening in June 2015, and set foot on Armenian soil for the very first time, he was greeted by such a large crowd that he had to rub his eyes to make sure he had flown to the right place.
He could have been forgiven for asking what all those people were doing there, holding up banners, shouting, screaming and taking photos as he emerged into the arrivals hall. The answer became evident as soon as he saw what was written on the banners: welcome messages in French. Just to remove all doubt, the autograph and selfie-hunters that converged on him made it clear that he was very much the centre of attention.
“It was all very surprising,” the Marseille defender told FIFA.com. “It was two or three in the morning, midweek. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there. Maybe just a couple of local journalists at the most.”
Such adulation would have been understandable if the arrival had been a star of world football. In this particular case, the recipient was a 20-year-old with barely a handful of professional appearances to his name. “It was a huge surprise because I’m not a big name,” added Andonian.
“It would have been normal if nothing had happened at all. When you arrive at the airport and you see all those people and all those cameras and flags, it really warms your heart. It also puts a little bit of pressure on you, though, because you tell yourself that you have to be up to the job and repay their confidence.”
An easy choice
Of Armenian stock but born in Marseille, Andonian represented France at U-16 level. When asked by Armenia if he wanted to play for them, however, he did not take long to answer in the affirmative. “I didn’t have to give it much thought. I let my heart make the decision,” said the player, who grew up supporting Les Bleus and watching a DVD of his idol Zinedine Zidane on repeat before starting to take an interest in Armenia’s fortunes when he was around 12 or 13.
“I am 100 per cent Armenian and I’ve been immersed in the culture since I was very young. My grandparents are from there and when I used to go round to their house I discovered the food and the culture and heard them talking some of the language. I didn’t know the country though. I’d never been there and I was the first member of my family to go back there since they left. And it was thanks to the decision I made that I was able to do that.”
That decision has also allowed Andonian to play regular football, something that has eluded him at Marseille. Despite being a member of the L’OM first-team squad since 2014 and signing his first professional contract in July 2015, he has played just the one match for the Ligue 1 club. “When I come back from the national team it gives me confidence and it shows me that I have got what it takes, because when all you do is train and play reserve matches, people wonder if you’re good enough to make it,” said the central defender, who can also slot in at left-back.
If there’s going to be a surprise, then our group looks like the perfect one for it.
“When I play against top-class opposition, I do well. I’ve faced the likes of Portugal, France and Serbia, and when you perform well against players like that, it gives you confidence. The problem is that you want to go and do it every weekend, which can be frustrating. You just have to hang on in there, though.”
While a loan spell at second-division Dijon in the first six months of 2016 gave Andonian the regular first-team football he craves, he went straight back to the reserves on his return to Marseille. How then does he manage to make the transition from second-string football to a UEFA EURO or FIFA World Cup™ qualifier? “It’s very tough,” came the reply.
“Everything’s different: the stadium, the supporters, the level of the opposition and the pace of the game. You can’t compare the two. Sometimes before a game, I take a step back and say to myself that I’m going from a CFA (France’s fourth tier) game to a match against players who’ve appeared at World Cups and who’ve won Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Ors.”
That change of scenario is something the left-sided defender has now grown used to, no matter who is lining up on the other side of the pitch. “When I came up against Cristiano Ronaldo, it did feel strange in the tunnel before going out on the pitch,” said Andonian. “But as soon as the referee blows his whistle, that’s it. Whether I’m facing Ronaldo or the Martigues centre-forward, it’s exactly the same. My goal as a defender is to make sure they don’t do anything during the game.”
*Hopeful signs *
His meeting with Ronaldo came in a EURO 2016 qualifier in Yerevan, a game in which the Portuguese forward hit all three of his side’s goals in a narrow 3-2 win, an indication of the progress Andonian and his team-mates have been making lately. Further proof of that came at the start of Armenia’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying campaign, with another close game away to Denmark.
“We lost 1-0, but we played really well. Things just didn’t go our way,” said the Marseille man, who did not put a foot wrong against the Danes. The same can be said for all of his 11 international appearances to date, which led to him being voted Armenia’s second-best player of the last year, behind star man Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
“What we need to do is gel as a team more, get to know each other a bit better. We’re a young side and we lack the tactical nous you need at the highest level: game management, how to play away, how to react if you go ahead, how to turn the game around when you fall behind.”
Though Andonian is aware that qualifying for Russia 2018 will be tough, he is not denying himself the chance to dream. “If you look at all the groups, ours is the most open of the lot,” he said of a section that, aside from Denmark, also contains Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Poland and Romania. “If you’re in a group with Italy and Spain, or with France and the Netherlands, then the top two spots are pretty much a foregone conclusion. If there’s going to be a surprise, then our group looks like the perfect one for it.”
If Armenia were to spring that surprise, one can only imagine the send-off Andonian and his colleagues would get on flying out to Russia from Yerevan Airport.