Treasures of Yerevan

There has been a football stadium in Yerevan’s Vardanants Street since 1935 when the old Dinamo Stadium was opened. In 1931 the city’s Dinamo Sports Club had asked the City Council of Armenian Commissars to provide a suitable site for a new football stadium for the city. A centrally located 16 hectare site was provided and after two years of construction, the new stadium was inaugurated with a match between Dinamo’s arch rivals Spartak Yerevan (later Ararat Yerevan) and KBKT Moscow.

Despite several renovations the elegant curves and classical pillars survive into the modern era, and provide Yerevan with a visually stunning national stadium. The first major renovation of the Dinamo Stadium came in 1953 under the auspices of architect Koryun Hakobyan who was also partly responsible for Yerevan’s much lauded concert and indoor sports venue called the Hamalir. The Dinamo Stadium gained its wonderfully ornate western facade during this initial refurbishment. However, by the end of the 20th century the stadium played very much second fiddle to its crosstown rival, the mighty Hrazdan Stadium. Opened in November 1970 it was also the work of Hakobyan, a former weightlifter, he was a favourite of the Soviet Union’s Politburo and became known as the “People’s Architect”.

Koryan Hakobyan

In 1999, with the help of a sizeable injection of funds from UEFA, a two year project of upgrading the Dinamo Stadium began, costing €3 million. The beautifully sympathetic modernisation turned the venue into a fully covered all seater stadium for the first time. The classical colonnades and Hakobyan’s facade, adorned with flag poles and bas-reliefs, were retained and the stadium’s extraordinary new roof turned the venue into a modern, but beautiful, international standard venue capable of holding 16,000 spectators.

Even though the stadium was owned by the City of Yerevan it was renamed the Republican Stadium (Hanrapetaken in Armenian). The closing year of the century was a pivotal one in the Pink City’s long history. On October 27th 1999, five masked gunmen lead by dissident Nairi Hunanyan broke into the Armenian Parliament and killed eight people including prime minister and national hero Vazgen Sargsyan and the President of the National Assembly, Karen Demirchyan. Sargsyan had risen to prominence as the commander of Armenian forces in the 1989-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War with Azerbaijan. He was appointed Defence Minister and had only become the eighth Prime Minister of Armenia in the June of the year of his assassination. As a remark of respect, the Republican Stadium became the Vazgen Sargsyan Republic Stadium and his image was incorporated into the entrance to the stadium.

The first game in the upgraded stadium came in October 2000 when Armenia took on Ukraine and raced into a two goal lead before the Ukrainians spoilt the occasion somewhat by rattling in three goals, two by Andrei Shevchenko, to take the points in a World Cup qualifying match.

The 16,000 capacity was reached in October 2003 when a European Championship qualifying match bought Spain to Yerevan. In 2008 the capacity was reduced to 14,403 when more VIP sections were installed by Israeli company Green Diversified.

Across town the Hrazdan Stadium and its iconic Soviet era floodlights dominate the city skyline. A proposal for a stadium in the gorge of the Hrazdan river was first muted in the 1950’s when Soviet First Deputy Chairman Anastas Mikoyan, a close ally of Stalin, visited the city and could see the natural amphitheatre of the gorge from where he was staying in the Presidential mansion.

However, work on the project did not start until 1969. Under the exacting eye of Koryun Hakobyan and fellow architect Gurgen Musheghyan, the work was remarkably completed in just eighteen months, no doubt more than a little pressure being exerted from Moscow to finish in 1970 to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Sovietisation” of Armenia.

The 75,000 capacity stadium cost five million roubles which included financial support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It was officially opened in November 1970 in front of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, although the planned parade had to be put back 24 hours due to heavy snow.

The magnificent stadium became home to the city’s powerhouse club, Ararat Yerevan, regular challengers in the Soviet Top League. The first official football match at the Hrazdan took place in May 1971 when an all time record attendance of 78,000 was set for the visit of Kazakstan’s Kairat Almaty.

The mountainous stadium became a fortress for Ararat and in 1973 they won the Soviet Top League and Soviet Cup double. It was the third season running the League had been won by a non-Muscovite club after successes for Dynamo Kyiv in 1971 and Zarya Voroshilovgrad (now known as Luhansk) a year later. The legendary 1973 Ararat side was commemorated in 2016 by Tigran Barseghyan and Vladimir Antashyan’s quite extraordinary bronze statues of 19 Ararat players and coaches standing behind the vast Soviet Top League trophy. Sadly, it was reported in May 2020 that four of the bronze statues had been stolen from their lofty position overlooking their fortress.

The Soviet Union national team even held two international matches, against Finland and Greece, at the Hrazdan in 1978. The stadium was privatised in 2003 and the new owners, the Hrazdan Holding CJSC, set about modernising the stadium. It became all seater for the first time with a reduced capacity of 54,208. The renovation was completed in 2008 and held an international for the first time in eight years when Armenia took on Turkey. It was something of an ironic opening fixture as one of the best views of the stadium is afforded from the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide memorial, erected in 1967 to remember the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

The owners of Hrazdan spent €6 million on the stadium in 2012 with the view to obtaining the grading to enable the hosting of UEFA finals. Now trading as Hrazdan Leasehold Venture CJSC the owners fell out with the Armenian Football Association and the mighty stadium was mothballed in 2016 and a year later even the pitch was dug up.

Meanwhile, Ararat, who had been continuous members of the Soviet Top League from 1965 to Armenia’s independence in 1991, had a huge fall from grace. They have only one Armenian title, in 1993, and fell some way below the new dominate Yerevan club, FC Pyunik. Pyunik’s ten consecutive Armenian championships between 2001 and 2010 have come under serious scrutiny with allegations of bribery and corruption. Match-fixing in general has caused seemingly irreparable damage to attendances in Armenian League matches and Ararat have been forced to play home games in modest venues like the Mika Stadium and the Yerevan Academy Stadium, with only the odd bigger match being held at the fabulous Republican Stadium.

The most recent Governmental talks surrounding the Hrazdan Stadium leave it’s future still somewhat in limbo. Armenian FA President Arthur Vanetsyan has lobbied Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for a new national stadium, calling Hrazdan “obsolete” for international competition. When pushed for a resolution with the impasse with the owners of Hrazdan, Vanetsyan stated negotiations were currently ongoing with a view to returning Armenian Championship football to this leviathan of a stadium. In many quarters, eyes would mist over at the prospect of Ararat, the mountain kings, returning to their spiritual home.

This article first appeared in the September 2020 edition of Groundtastic Magazine (No.102)

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