By Robert O’Connor
High up in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh, the tiny de facto republic at the crossroads of the Eurasian continent, hope is a priceless currency. Few people appreciate its value more than Samuel Karapetyan.
Inside the offices of the Artsakh Union of Freedom Fighters, the Head of the Artsakh Football Association (AFA) uses carefully chosen words to explain how his organisation has begun the long process of winning UEFA recognition for a region which has spent 30 years living in the shadow of war.
“All this war and conflict is temporary”, he says lighting a cigarette. “One day soon, the Artsakh national team will participate in the World Cup or European Championship”.
“We are hopeful”, reiterates Karapetyan. “In fact we are convinced that recognition will come soon, because all the world is interested in establishing peace in this region. Sooner or later Azerbaijan will recognize Artsakh, then we will participate not just in football but in every aspect of international life”.
The preliminary discussions with Uefa over the AFA’s membership began in November 2016. The dialogue remains embryonic, but Karapetyan says it represents a crucial first step in eventually bringing the territory out of isolation.
“The process is underway. We are confident that the Artsakh team will participate in international tournaments, and that it is coming soon. If we were not confident in our success then we wouldn’t live here”.
“Before 2006 there was no organised football in Artsakh” says Slava Gabrielyan, the Uefa Pro-license coach with responsibility for selecting the nascent NKR national team. March 1st of that year saw the establishment of FC Artsakh, the region’s only formal football club, but there has never been a national championship here for the team to compete in. “We have some friendly games against teams from Armenia and sometimes from Georgia”, he says. “But we never have competitive games. It’s not possible for us”.
“In Crimea, Uefa have recognised that the territory is neither part of Russia nor Ukraine” says Gabrielyan. “They have put measures in place to allow football there to prosper. We hope and expect that Uefa will do the same here in Artsakh”.
“The problem is that we don’t have the means to show the world that we can play”, says FC Artsakh coach Levon Mkrtchyan. “We only play here for ourselves, but our aim is to show outsiders what we can do. We want the world to know about Karabakh and Karabakh footballers”.
One of the realities of living in a region stalked by conflict is that security measures trump most other considerations. When Artsakh men reach 18 years-old they are whisked away for two years of military national service. Gabrielyan and Mkrtchyan believe footballers should be exempt from the rule but the status quo holds, meaning FC Artsakh’s players have their development interrupted a delicate stage.
The AFA does what it can to limit the disruption. Much of the funding it receives from the Ministry for Sport is reinvested in training up local coaches to international standard; Mkrtchyan currently holds a UEFA B-license, and plans to match his colleague’s Pro-license soon. With the NKR a non-entity in world football, both coaches are registered with Uefa via the FFA in Yerevan
“We take coaching seriously here”, says Karapetyan. “This year we will have some international coaches from other countries coming to Stepanakert to work with our players. However, we mostly have to use retired coaches so as not to cause problems for other national football associations”.
Internationally, the AFA’s work continues largely under the radar. In 2010 FC Artsakh competed in a tournament in France organized by the Armenian diaspora, and later this year they will travel to Catalonia as part of a similar arrangement.
For Gabrielyan’s national team, their most conspicuous foray into the international scene remains the 2014 ConIFA World Cup in Ostersund, Sweden, where defeats to the County of Nice and the Isle of Man’s Ellan Vannin saw them eliminated in the first round. A formal protest made to ConIFA by the AFFA in Baku over Karabakh’s involvement went unheeded by the organizers.