As World Cup approaches, a budding team has no opponents
STEPANAKERT, Azerbaijan (AP) — With the World Cup less than a month away, there is a budding national team in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh with no one to play against.
The ethnic Armenian team in the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh has the shirts and the shoes, and even practices five days each week on an artificial field a short distance from the center of Stepanakert, the territory's capital. But that's about as far as the team goes.
"UEFA doesn't let us participate anywhere," said Artsakh defender Aram Kostandyan, who wishes he could inspire the younger generation of players and show them "why they are playing football."
The reason for the lack of opponents has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with politics.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region, as it's known by its Soviet name, is considered part of neighboring Azerbaijan by the international community, located just north of Iran in the South Caucasus region. But since a six-year separatist war ended in 1994, it has been controlled by the local ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.
Living in a state of frozen conflict, the de facto Republic of Artsakh — in reference to the name of the region before Soviet times — is unrecognized by international institutions and the people of the region are prohibited from taking part in most international activities under their national flag.
UEFA and FIFA have a general policy of not allowing teams into competition if they don't represent an internationally recognized country or territory. That policy was weakened when Gibraltar and Kosovo joined FIFA in 2016 despite being only partially recognized.
The Artsakh national team has made several unsuccessful requests for UEFA membership, the last time in 2017.
Compounding political sensitivities is an Azerbaijani team playing under the name of Qarabag which made it to the Champions League this year. The team was previously based in Agdam, a town in occupied territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that was entirely destroyed during the 1988-94 war. Today, they are based in Baku, supported financially by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government and with a fan base of refugees and their descendants.
"They represent one country, we represent another," Artsakh coach Slavik Gabrielyan. "We see them using this name as a political statement."
The reality of life playing soccer in Nagorno-Karabakh is vastly different from the splendor of the Champions League.
A mud road leads to the entrance of the Stepanakert Republican Stadium and an old Lada car is parked on the track circling the field. Metal scraps rust away on the edge of the stands, and a youth team is practicing at the other end.
All the players are professionals, but with a salary of about $120 per month, most cannot survive solely on soccer.
Midfielder Arsen Sargsyan played in the Armenian league for more than seven years, but has now returned to Stepanakert. Besides playing soccer, Sargsyan also has a small business, helps out on the farms, and generally does "every job I can get my hands on."
Despite the hardship, the team says it is united and holds on to the hope that one day it will be able to make the locals proud.
The few tournaments they can partake in involve other unrecognized states, or the pan-Armenian games which take place every four years. In 2015, they won that tournament by beating a team of Russians living in Armenia.
"The Karabakh spirit is very high," Sargsyan said with a smile as he spoke about a future where the Artsakh team can "play under our country's flag."
That's something pretty much everyone with the team can agree on.
"We have hope. We believe," said Gabrielyan, who has spent 18 years as a player and 30 as a coach. "This grassy field is my second home. Look how beautiful it is with its two goals on each side."