By Appo Jabarian
Executive Publisher/Managing Editor
USA Armenian Life Magazine
Armenia’s national football team can mount a successful campaign to secure a berth in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, provided that the players also master ‘playing’ the ‘game’ behind-the-game.
After securing a hard-won away victory against Malta 1-0 in their opening qualifier on Sept. 6 in Malta, the Sept 10 match in Sofia against lion-spirited Bulgaria, was the first true test of Armenia’s character. The other significant threats and seemingly insurmountable challenges are to come from Italy, Denmark and Czech Republic.
Armenia’s 0-1 loss against Bulgaria should not obscure the promise of a brighter future as the Armenian young stars do have what it takes to regroup and put their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying campaign on the right track.
On the same day that both Bulgaria and Armenia lost one and two players respectively to expulsions (by receiving red cards), England ended a challenging night in London against Ukraine (1-1) with ten men after captain Steven Gerrard was sent off for a second booking in the closing moments and the Liverpool midfielder will be suspended for the next qualifier against San Marino in October. Armenia will be deprived from Marcos Pizzelli and Gevork Ghazaryan in its next crucial match on October 12 against Italy in Yerevan. Bulgaria will play without its valuable player Svetoslav Dyakov in its match against Denmark.
In the meantime FIFA is faced with the urgency to govern the controversial ‘game’ behind-the game — the grey area of on-the-pitch and off-the-pitch subtle provocations that some national football associations engage in. As long as this grey area remains ungoverned, more sophisticated national squads such as Bulgaria may resort to subtle tricks to artificially alter the flow of the game.
During the Bulgaria-Armenia match, at a time when Bulgaria had already scored the match’s first goal, almost every time the ball was kicked out of the pitch by a Bulgarian player Bulgarian Football Federation volunteers were giving Armenian players two balls instead of one, hindering the speed with which Armenian players would restart the game. That’s one such situation to which an Armenian player over-reacted by angrily kicking the ‘extra’ ball back to the ‘generous’ Bulgarian volunteer. At that moment, the referee failed to see the chronic ‘extra’ ball ‘service’ by Bulgarian volunteers he sent off Armenia’s frustrated player. This is where the Armenian player lacked the discipline NOT to over-react.
This is only one out of many such provocations being employed by more ‘marinated’ European national football associations. These questionable practices hinder the full development of European football talent.
As for the refereeing in Sofia, it was mediocre. The referee repeatedly ignored the importance of settling early on the gross fouls committed with timely yellow cards. It was apparent that some players were playing with over-aggressiveness and committing harsh fouls, yet the referee was simply calling on the fouls without issuing any kind of warning cards. So the match went out of control. A fist fight nearly broke out between some players. Sadly an otherwise festive day degenerated into a negative experience not only for both national squads but also for FIFA and world football.
FIFA can play a pivotal role by governing this grey area. Otherwise others who do not lack the mental capacity will also master ‘playing’ the ‘game’ behind the game. The extra-curricular tricks may be entertaining but sure are harmful to quality football.
In the absence of FIFA action, newcomers should initiate a special program to develop their players’ strategic thinking in order to withstand any kind of provocations ‘presented’ by more experienced players. Maintaining cool-headedness and fortitude of character in the face of such cases can help avoid yellow or even worse, red cards.
Can Armenia recover from the consequences of the untimely expulsion of two its most valuable players – Pizzelli and Ghazaryan? It can, only if the national team’s top leadership does a better job at equipping the Armenian players with finer psychological fortitude, keener strategic thinking and enhancement of sophistication to neutralize the multi-level pressures of being on international and super-competitive pitch.
During its EURO 2012 qualifying campaign, Armenia broke new grounds. But the competition for FIFA World Cup 2014 is something else. Some 53 European nations are vying each to secure one of the 13 available berths for Europe. And the competition in each of the eight groups (A through I) will surely be stiffer if not uglier. The stakes are high for many of the European national squads both on individual and collective levels.
Ranking 53rd among 209 nations, Armenia is ‘fortunate’ to have been assigned to a very tough ‘neighborhood’ — Group B that is populated by super competitive teams such as Italy (ranking 6th); Denmark (8th); Czech Republic (19th); Bulgaria (89th); and Malta (139th).
However many fans are confident that Armenia will not push under the rug the challenges but face them head-on to ultimately overcome them and bring its puzzle’s missing pieces together and engineer a newly reconditioned indomitable team that can register impressive wins.
Even after Armenia’s loss against Bulgaria, a blogger from Denmark wrote on FIFA.com on Sept. 11: “This group is extremely tight. I have no idea who’s gonna finish where and I don’t think that Italy has secured the 1st spot. It will be a really close race and probably not be determined before the last match.”
Another blogger added: “Yes, Denmark and Czech Republic have the firepower to upset the Italians. But then again, Bulgaria and Armenia have enough speed and technique to upset the traditional powerhouses in their group. Who could have predicted 89th ranked Bulgaria would snatch an equalizer from Italy by scoring twice against a formidable Italian team. That’s the beauty of football — any team has the opportunity to become formidable!”
On August 30 several days before Armenia’s match against Bulgaria he presciently commented: “The conventional wisdom points to a heated race between Italy, Denmark and Czech Republic. But as the old saying goes, ‘the ball is round and the field is wide open.’ So let’s not count Bulgaria and Armenia out, especially Armenia! If Armenia plays with the same spirit, technique and stamina like they did in EURO 2012, they will surely surprise the heck out of Italy, Denmark and Czech Republic. Armenia may lose points against Bulgaria but win heftily against Denmark. Let’s see and keep our eyes open for the Cinderella wearing multi-color soccer shoes.”
Before the start of EURO 2012, Armenia ranked 96th in August 2010. By the time the campaign was over in late 2011 Armenia moved up to 46th place — an impressive jump indeed.
Now it ranks at 53rd. If the national squad recreates the same EURO 2012 level of discipline and performance during the 2014 World Cup qualifier campaign, it will most definitely achieve new heights.