1 Mar 2012
Bayramian & Makhmudov: Two young athletes bucking Armenian-Azerbaijani rivalry in football
The Commonwealth Cup recently concluded in St. Petersburg generated little interest from football fans. No surprise as it involved junior and youth squads primarily from former Soviet space. Even the final game – between Russia and Belarus – gathered just a few thousand spectators.
But the Cup did feature at least one development worth writing about – the play-making duo of Khoren Bayramian and Emin Makhmudov of the Russian team.
Both players were born 20 years ago in newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan but were raised in Russia, where their parents emigrated in the 1990s. Makhmudov is now a substitute player for Spartak Moscow, one of the most prominent Russian teams; and Bayramian has lately been making the first team for the less illustrious, but a steady Premiere League participant FC Rostov.
The Commonwealth Cup was the first time the two players played together but they got along quite productively indeed – jointly participating in at least five scoring drives for the Russian team, frequently under borderline nationalist chants: “Russians forward!” and “Only Russians! Only victory!”
But this display of professionalism was most likely not seen by most people in Armenia and Azerbaijan, with neither country represented in the Commonwealth Cup. (The Cup, in addition to nearly all other former Soviet republics, including the three Baltic states, also involved Iran.)
And no reports of their combined performance could be seen in either Armenian or Azerbaijani media, although Armenian football sites did reporter Bayramian’s successful performance which included one goal and one assist.
Football rivalry that predates Karabakh
But this was perhaps the first time in many years for ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani players to play together. In fact rival football sympathies divided Armenians and Azerbaijan even before the Karabakh dispute brought largely hidden mutual recriminations into an open, violent conflict.
In the 1950s, a game between Leninakan (Gyumri) and Kirovabad (Ganje) teams played in Kirovabad resulted in days of inter-ethnic rioting. Nothing raised tensions in then multi-ethnic Baku like games between local Neftchi and Yerevan’s Ararat as part of the Soviet championship. And a move by a Baku-born ethnic Armenian striker from Neftchi to Ararat – accompanied by a shift in sympathies of many Baku Armenians – was seen by many other football fans in Baku as a betrayal of highest magnitude.
In more recent years, Azerbaijan refused to host Armenia’s team in Baku or play in Yerevan, when both teams were drawn into the same group in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. And in the 2012 Euro Cup qualifiers Armenia and Azerbaijan were again drawn together but were reassigned to different groups by European football officials.
What’s possible in Russia, impossible in Caucasus?
National football federations of Armenia and Azerbaijan have actively courted Bayramian and Makhmudov but with no success so far. Recent rule changes make it more difficult for foreign national team players to win positions in Russian Premiere League clubs, leaving young Russia-based players more reluctant to accept national team invitations from abroad.
Bayramian’s and Makhmudov’s call-up in Russia’s Under 21 team also reflected Russian football union’s interest in wooing the two young talents for its national team. Russia’s main team already includes a veteran Russia-born player of Azerbaijani descent Aleksandr Samedov, who is also a key playmaker for Dinamo Moscow, another top Russian team that just recruited Armenia’s veteran goalkeeper and Yerevan native Roman Berezovsky.
Russian Premier League is also home to about a dozen top Georgian football players. Unlike the Karabakh conflict, the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 has not stopped most people of the two countries from interacting normally. And whereas Russia imposed an embargo on most Georgian-produced goods, Russian clubs have continued to sign on Georgian nationals.
For now it is hard to imagine Armenians players in the Azerbaijani league, or vice versa. Perhaps that can change at some point in the future without requiring both of these leagues to be merged with Russia’s. For now Bayramian and Makhmoudov provided a rare public example of Armenian-Azerbaijani cooperation.