I made a deal with a fellow soccer enthusiast, Dina Apovian: No matter what happened during Euro qualifying, as huge soccer fans of our respective nations, we would be in it together and in it for the long haul.
Armenia and Ireland had been drawn together for Euro 2012 qualifying and we harbored dreams of both nations making it to the tournament. As it turned out, only Ireland made it. That being said, when the tournament draw was finally made on Dec. 2, 2011 at the Ukraine Palace of Arts in Kiev, Ukraine, and we learned that Ireland’s games were to be held in Poland, we knew we’d have to get two sets of match tickets and two sets of airline tickets from Boston to Poznań.
Although Dina’s team would not be participating in the tournament, she was along for the ride and certainly ready to represent as an Armenian fan. Throwing herself amidst hardened and journeyed fans from countries with strong soccer traditions such as Italy, Spain, Croatia, and Poland, there was no doubt in my mind that she’d be donning that red Armenia jersey with pride in their midst (especially since it was the first item of clothing that lined the bottom of her suitcase).
Getting out of Boston proved to be an ordeal in itself; suffice it to say that rush hour traffic reared its ugly head on our day of travel. Gridlock on Storrow Drive is not an overstatement of what greeted us when we set off for the airport. Moving one or two car lengths in an hour is enough to make a person’s blood boil at the best of times. But knowing one could miss a multi-legged flight and see months of planning derailed without even arriving at the airport makes even the most reserved of individuals hang out of their driver side window, blowing their horn in despair. While thinking about falling at the proverbial first hurdle, I’ve never taken so many deep breaths in, and counted to 100 so many times.
As many can attest, rush hour traffic tends to be the survival of the fittest, every man and/or woman for him/herself. While at a standstill, we found ourselves stepping out of our vehicle to inspect the desperate situation we found ourselves in, trying to plot our escape. A casual remark to the people in the car next to us seemed to change things: We found sympathizers to our cause and no doubt fellow lovers of the beautiful game. In mentioning what was at stake and how our Euro adventures were in the balance as precious time slipped away, we were told emphatically, “You can still make it, go ahead of us and try to make the outside lane, it is moving.”
That simple gesture of goodwill between soccer fans, on Storrow Drive of all places, set us on our way. We were able to make it to Logan Airport, arriving with an empty gas tank and minutes to spare, and that isn’t an exaggeration!
Apologetically skipping the security lines and arriving at the departure gate in panic mode, our demeanor couldn’t have been any further from our fellow passengers who were boarding at their leisure. We had obviously made it in time, but the heightened sense of focus that had helped us get there hadn’t quite subsided yet. When we finally took our seats on the plane and had time to take stock of the situation, we realized how comical a sight we must have been at the gate. So with a lot of luck, some moderately aggressive city driving, and reluctant rudeness in the security lines, we were on our way.
Since our flight connected through Dublin and Frankfurt before travelling on to Poznań, we were sure to meet fellow fans and share stories and predictions along the way. Of course, when Dina fielded the obligatory “Where are you from?” icebreaker, her answer drew plenty of reaction and stimulated further conversation. It turns out that those same fans that were “selling the farm” to journey to Poland had also travelled far and wide during the qualifying stages. As far as Yerevan to be exact.
An Irish couple we spoke to on the short haul flight between Frankfurt and Poznań had plenty of good things to say about their trip to Armenia. In between hands of an animated card game on the tray table in front of them, they commented on their pleasant experiences in Yerevan: The hospitality, value for money, the weather, and overall uniqueness of the city had them saying that the regular three-night visit offered by travel agents for away-games was simply not enough to take in all the city had to offer.
That was typical of the responses we heard from the Irish fans we spoke with. As the days passed and we traveled between Poznań and Gdańsk, and back again following the team, we kept an eye out for any Armenian colors. It must have been just unlucky for us, as we did not get to meet other Armenian fans on our travels. From keeping an eye on media and television coverage, there seemed to be a number of them to be found interspersed in the crowds of the various cities and matches. But unfortunately, our paths never crossed.
We returned to Poznań for the third group game, a match between Italy and Ireland held at the Miejski Stadium. This was the final hurrah for Ireland, having been eliminated mathematically after two games. Floating through the seas of blue and green jerseys, Dina decided that a touch more red flare was required before we journeyed home. So with the red of the Polish fans and Dina’s Armenian jersey complementing the other primary colors—the blue of Italy and green of Ireland—the colorful landscape created by the fans at the Miejski was spectacular.
We had great conversations and took many photos at that game with the fans we chatted with. The Armenian jersey certainly was a talking point. A pair of fans approached us with an inquisitive tone, “Armenia? What are you doing here?” That was Derek Sage and Eoin Stapleton, seasoned Irish supporters and longtime followers of the Boys in Green.
It turned out that they had been to all of Ireland’s away fixtures during qualifying. Derek was impressed with what he found in Armenia: “We loved Yerevan…good people. It was the best spot we were in. We were in Moscow, Talinn, Žilina, Andorra, Barcelona…Yerevan was top notch”. Eoin enjoyed Opera Square and managed to find a pub or two that were very welcoming to the traveling fans.
They also mentioned how the game was played in the smaller Republican Stadium. With a capacity just shy of 15,000 and an attendance of 8,600 at the game in question, the atmosphere was still great, they said.
As the qualifiers continued, Armenia’s home attendances grew with their increasing success in the group. For the upcoming friendly with Belarus, and the World Cup qualifiers that follow, the much larger capacity Hrazdan Stadium will be the venue. With plenty expected from the greatly improving Armenia team, and a potential capacity of just fewer than 54,000, away-games could be even more special for traveling fans, and the atmosphere even more hostile for visiting teams.
The atmosphere created by loud and energetic home fans can work wonders for a team, helping them find that extra gear that’s needed to overcome adversity on the pitch. It’s one of those intangible things that don’t show up on any stat sheet, but the partisan nature of the home crowd can spur a team to extra points in the table. How often have you heard pundits declare that home victories are a necessity for teams with any sort of lofty ambitions?
It has been a few weeks since we’ve returned to reality, but the experiences of Poland regularly flash to mind. Our Euro 2012 travels were all we’d hoped them to be. We visited a great country with friendly people and got to see some quality games in state-of-the-art stadiums. The cities of Gdańsk and Poznań were charming with many picturesque sights. The only way to top a trip like that is to dream bigger. I’m picturing Ipanema Beach right now, and perhaps we’ll have more than one team to support next time around. Roll on Brazil 2014.