Turkey and Armenia – When football opened the door to reconciliation.

A century is a long time when counted against the essentially ephemeral nature of a lifetime. Many sentient beings would both arrive on, and then take their leave of, this earth in the scope of those years. Those same years though, counted against institutionalised memory of tragic events of mind-numbing intensity, the sort of trauma that leaves indelible marks not on an individual person, but on a whole people, may be but a drop of water in the infinite swell of the world’s oceans. At such times a rapprochement between two peoples may seem an insurmountable task. With each passing year, attitudes harden and viewpoints become ever more deeply entrenched. But even the most firmly bolted door can be unlocked when the correct key is found. And at such times, that key may lie in the most unexpected of places.

The draw for the qualifying groups in the 2010 World Cup was made in the South African city of Durban on 25th November 2007. Few knew it at the time, but the consequences of the balls coming out of the various pots in the particular order that they did, would be the first step on the road to a reconciliation, unforeseen and largely considered unwarranted, between two neighbouring countries who had shared a common bitterness bordering on hatred, as well as a common border that seethed with bitterness. It’s perhaps fitting therefore that this first step happened in the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ where reconciliation was the essential building block for a better future.

As the draw was completed, first just a few, and then more, observers realised the implications of the outcome that had placed the teams in Group Five. The draw had been seeded and, as reigning champions, Spain were placed in the top group of countries in Pot A. They were the first team to be placed in Group Five. Others followed. Turkey from Pot B. The Belgians were added from Pot C and then the troubled states of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Pot D. Armenia was the ball from Pot E, before Estonia completed the group from the final pot. You cannot fix a draw of course – although many will argue to the countrary – but if such shenanigans were an option, it’s likely that Fifa would have avoided this group being formed as it was. The particular complication being the fact that Turkey and Armenia would now have to play against each other.

For those unfamiliar with a period of history in the dark past of that area of Europe’s eastern flank, it’s important to know that there had been almost a century of animosity spilling across the border between the two countries. During the First World War, a series of atrocities occurred across the continent in an outbreak of ethnic cleansing that would make later Balkan events, although truly dreadful, appear relatively minor in comparison.

Armenian accounts state that up to one and a half million of their compatriots, including women and children, were massacred by Ottoman troops in a genocide visited upon the country by its neighbour. Ankara, unsurprisingly disputed this description, citing that any figure related to death dealt out by its troops was much lower, and largely legitimate given the ensuing armed conflict at the time, with many others falling victim to starvation, privation and disease caused by events beyond Turkey’s control, let alone their design.

It’s a disagreement that runs to much more than mere numbers however. The term ‘genocide’ has a particular sinister meaning beyond that of merely a mass killing – as if that was not sufficiently odious. For an act to be so defined, it must relate to the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. It’s not difficult to imagine how perceptions of the events of almost a century ago, whatever the truth of it, would create such animosity.

Efforts had been made to try and bridge the apparently unfordable divide between Armenia and Turkey, and indeed the latter was one of the first countries to officially recognise the sovereignty of the independent state of Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was a brief and unfulfilled attempt at a cooling of tensions however. Relations soured again a few years later when Armenia occupied the Azerbaijan enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies wholly within the Armenian borders. As close allies of the Azeris, Turkey was compelled to side with them, offering support in the long and largely unfinished war that followed. Armenian claims on territory on Turkey’s eastern border area did little to ease tensions.

Ans so the scene was set for what looked to be, at best a potentially troublesome encounter and, at worst, an explosive one, when the first of the group games between the countries was scheduled for 6th September 2008 at the Hrazdan Stadium in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. While some see trouble though, to others, the same vista offers up an opportunity, if there’s a person brave enough to reach into the white-hot heat of the animosity and find the key that lies, albeit oft hidden, there.

Serzh Sargsyan had been elected as the third President of the independent state of Armenia in February 2008. Ironically, or perhaps importantly, Sargsyan had been born in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. He, therefore, had first hand experience of the ethnic strife in the region and the bitterness it caused. It may well have shaped his attitudes and political philosophy. At his ‘swearing in’ at the Yerevan Opera House in April 2008, he, “urge(d) everybody to look forward, together, to seek and find the way for reconciliation, development, and future of Armenia.” At the time, it may well have been a rallying call for his country to move past any issues of dispute and unrest surrounding the election, but it could equally have foretold of his approach to when his country was scheduled to play a football match against its antagonistic neighbours.

Apparently inspired by the so-called ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy that helped restore diplomatic relations between China and the USA 25 years earlier, Sargsyan decided to adopt of policy of ‘football diplomacy’ and reached out a hand to the Turks. “The people of Armenia and Turkey are united in their love of football,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Whatever our differences, there are certain cultural, humanitarian and sports links that our people share, even with a closed border.” He invited the Turkish President Abdullah Gul, to visit Yerevan for the game and sit alongside him. It was a move both hugely bold, and to many Armenians massively unpopular. It was a gamble, but if you’re reaching into a fire to grab a key, there’s always the danger of your fingers getting burnt.

It takes two to tango of course, and the same number to begin any meaningful steps towards even a tentative reconciliation. In Turkey, there was as much negative reaction to the invitation as there had been in Armenia, but as Sargsyan reached out, his hand was met by Gul’s and together the key was lifted from the flames of fury expressed by sectors of their own populations. Even the manager of the Turkish national team was less than enthusiastic about the gesture, perhaps also fearing that, should the game flare up in any significant way, it could imperil any prospects for reconciliation. Fetih Terim certainly felt the burden he, and his team, were being compelled to bear. “We cannot carry the weight of history on our shoulders,” he cautioned.

As the date of the game grew near, fears began to arise on both sides of the border. In Turkey, as is often the case at such times, political posturing took hold, playing to the emotions of the masses. Denis Baykal, leader of the Republican People’s Party made clear his thoughts on the matter, declaring that he would instead prefer to watch the game in Baku, the capital of Turkey’s Azeri allies – and enemies of Armenia in the battle over the disputed enclave – and that no visit should take place ahead of the disputes between the two countries being resolved. Such a stance may be akin to an argument in favour of putting ‘the cart before the horses’ but it played out well to much of the Turkish population raised in a climate of seemingly perpetual animosity, and logic often loses out in the heat of passion. There was plenty of passion to go around.

It would be wrong however to think that Gul faced a unanimous protest against any consideration of a decision to take up the invitation. Prime Minister Erdogan, and his government were keen for any signs of rapprochement that would be interpreted globally as Turkey becoming an increasingly modern and tolerant state, in pursuit of EU membership. In government circles, it was a widely held opinion. Nevertheless, it took Gul until a few days before the game to accept the invitation. Whether this was due to reasons of uncertainty, or an attempt to limit the time for any opposition to gain momentum isn’t clear, but once the decision was in place, the die was set. “The match will be an opportunity to overcome obstacles and prepare a new ground to bring the two people together,” a statement from his office declared. But would the opportunity be grasped. The presidents would sit next to each other and watch a game of football, but from there, the future was unclear.

More than 5,000 Turks were reported as likely to make the journey, conjuring up images of chaos on the border, but the Armenians agreed to waive formal immigration processes as a goodwill gesture. Even then, there was the danger that such a large group of traditional enemies heading for Yerevan would be a provocation for Armenian nationalists to exact revenge with violent attacks.

In the midst of such tensions though, a football match broke out that was largely, and happily, uneventful. Turkey prevailed thanks to second-half goals from Tuncay and Semih, but the outcome of the game seemed of little importance compared to the events going on around it. With the presidents of both countries, and their advisors, together for the first time in living memory, discussions took place as to a meaningful way forward, and as a sign of the new opportunities opening up, a number of white doves were released in the stadium. A few days later, an agreement was signed.

The return game in Ankara, played a month later, also resulted in a two-goal victory for the Turks, but with diplomacy, against all expectations, now moving forward, it was a much less fraught affair. Although not yet extinguished, the flames had dampened down somewhat. Football diplomacy had proven to be the key to open the door a little way at least. Now it was ajar, the opportunity was there for the leaders of both countries to walk through it.

At the end of the day, neither Turkey or Armenia would qualify for the Finals tournament of the 2010 World Cup played out in South Africa. Turkey finished third in the qualifying group, four points behind Bosnia and Herzegovina – another benighted area of the globe in need of soothing balm, where the dread spectre of genocide had raised its head. Armenia were rooted to the foot of the table, with just a single victory from their programme of fixtures, albeit that one being the more remarkable as it came against Belgium. To many, it mattered little.

Disputing for once though, the sage observation of the legendary Bill Shankly about football being far more important than a matter of life and death, missing out on football’s global jamboree, when compared to the binding up of deep-seated wounds and reconciliation across nations, perhaps the results of football matches should be measured as with the ticking off of those years in a century, and be counted as but a drop of water in the infinite swell of the world’s oceans.

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