Four months have passed, but fans of the Armenian national soccer team have yet to forget the bitter pill they had to swallow last October at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The Armenian Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, which had gathered so much momentum over the previous 12 months, suddenly and unceremoniously came to a grinding halt with a 2-1 defeat to the Irish. The Irish advanced, and Armenia was eliminated.
Grievances from the game in question and, in particular, the suspect refereeing decisions that transpired on the night have been well documented. However, it is the broad consensus that Armenia played with flare, guile, and panache that night in Dublin and that, putting questionable officiating to one side, Coach Minasyan’s youngsters were ultimately undone by Ireland’s trump card…experience.
It should be noted that Ireland had seen it all before, on more than one occasion. Most recently, Ireland suffered an agonizing playoff defeat to Thierry Henry and his French team prior to WC 2010. In total, they have suffered defeat in five major championship playoffs. Falling at the final hurdle on five occasions is certainly tough to take, but Ireland has been able to harness those experiences and come back a stronger team. On two other occasions, they managed to prevail in the playoffs and in doing so reached the proverbial Promised Land (WC 2002 and Euro 2012).
This was Armenia’s first venture into the trepid waters of “make or break” international soccer. At the business end of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, they found themselves in the most important international match since independence, and they acquitted themselves tremendously. Armenia ran Ireland ragged at times, and knowing now that the Irish made it all the way to this year’s tournament in Poland and Ukraine, it is right for Armenia to celebrate a moral victory.
Armenia has a squad of young skillful players that play a style of soccer that purists admire and that is encouraged by their bright young coach. Armenia is knocking on the door of big time international soccer. It will be up to the FFA and Coach Minasyan not to dwell on the loss in Dublin, but instead to improve the squad as needed and prepare diligently for WC 2014 qualifying, which begins in September with a trip to Malta.
All indications from the Armenia camp since October have been positive ones. During Euro 2012 qualifying, Coach Minasyan had been splitting his time as head coach of FC Pyunik, a team in the premier division of the Armenian domestic league, while coaching the national team. In November, Minasyan resigned his coaching position at FC Pyunik to concentrate on his national team duties.
This is an exciting decision by Coach Minasyan and a signal of his intentions for the national team. Armenian soccer is on an upward trajectory. This is also evident by the escalating profiles of the national team players. During the January transfer window, Armenia’s Brazilian-born midfielder Marcos Pizzelli was signed by Russian Premier League team Kuban Krasnodar, while many other Armenian names were also hitting the rumor mill. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was recommended by a scout to Arsene Wenger, coach of EPL giants Arsenal, while Yura Movsisyan’s name was linked with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
It is true to say that success breeds success. As current players gain prominence on the world scene, it can only mean good things for Armenia’s youth programs. The current crop of players serve as great role models, prompting children to be out on the streets playing soccer, looking to improve and hoping to be the next big national team star.
The FFA recognizes this time as a great opportunity to spark a youngster’s interest in the beautiful game. They have sponsored current players to visit Armenian schools to promote the game; most recently Yura Movsisyan and Hrayr Mkoyan held a master class at Shirak Sports School in Gyumri, Armenia. Movsisyan has also been active in the U.S., holding a soccer clinic in Pasadena California in December.
Considering the vast Armenian Diaspora, work such as Movsisyan’s clinic in the U.S. can also play a key role in the future success of the national team. Movsisyan himself chose to play for Armenia when the U.S. national team was knocking on his door. Other players, such as Marcos Pizzelli (Brazil), Aras Ozbiliz (Turkey), and Artur Sarsikov (Russia), also declared for Armenia during the last campaign, and will hopefully lead the way for other great foreign-born Armenian players to look to their motherland for international soccer.
The FFA has also been busy on other fronts. They have negotiated and announced a major sponsorship deal with Adidas, who took over from Hummel as national team jersey manufacturer. They are doing a great job with the U21 national team as they attempt to qualify for their own Euro finals in Israel 2013. Coach Rafael Nazaryan will be hoping that some of his young players have what it takes to graduate to the senior squad in time for the World Cup in Brazil. One of his star strikers, Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, might be a name to watch out for in the future.
The FFA also held their annual awards ceremony on Dec. 15 in Yerevan to honor the key contributors of the previous year. Henrikh Mkhitaryan collected his second Player of the Year Award in the last three years in recognition for his standout performances. Yura Movsisyan and Roman Berezovsky were also honored on the night as a nod to both the newer and older generations of the team. Coach Minasyan was named Coach of the Year for 2011 for his terrific work that has certainly laid the foundations for future successes.
At the end of February, Coach Minasyan’s work will continue. He will be assembling a squad of 28 to 30 players in Cyprus for back-to-back friendly matches versus Serbia and Canada, to be held on Feb. 28 and 29, respectively. His aim will be to introduce younger players to the international setup with the goal of fortifying his senior squad before the next qualifying campaign.
In less than seven months, some of these debutants could find themselves in the mix as qualification matches begin. In less than 20 months, some could find themselves punching a ticket to Brazil and the World Cup finals. To do so, Coach Minasyan’s men must navigate a group with teams such as Italy, Denmark, Czech Rep, Bulgaria, and Malta—a task that is well within the their grasp.