In the Hall of the Mountain Kings (FC Ararat Yerevan)

As a boy some of the mystical names of Soviet football really fascinated me, exciting names like Zenit Leningrad, Torpedo Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan seem so beguiling yet somehow impossibly distant. It comes with unbridled joy on my behalf to have visited two of those boyhood wonderments in one trip.

Ararat Yerevan were formed in 1935 as Spartak Yerevan and spent many seasons in the second tier of the Transcaucasian League where their main rivals were Dinamo Tbilisi. Yerevan made it to the Soviet Top League for the first time in 1949 but it was the 1960’s that was to prove the making of the club, a decade which also saw them change their name from Spartak to Ararat in homage to the mighty and iconic mountain peaks that backdrop the city of Yerevan like a shrouded pathway to another continuum.

Despite relegation in 1963 the “White Eagles” surged back to the top tier in 1966 and stayed there until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Winners of the Soviet Top League had been few and far between outside of the major cities of Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The turn of the decade, though, saw something stirring in the South Caucuses when Ararat finished as runners up in the Soviet League to Dynamo Kiev. Despite changing managers half way through the 1973 season new incumbent Nikita Simonyan oversaw a sensational league and cup double as Ararat won the league by three points ahead of Dynamo Kiev and also defeated Kiev in the Soviet Cup Final. The feat is immortalised by a huge statue of all the players and the trophy that looks out towards Ararat’s long time home, the gargantuan Hrazdan Stadium.

The Hrazdan Stadium and the statue commemorating Ararat Yerevan’s 1973 Soviet Union League and Cup double and 1975 Soviet Cup win.

The championship naturally meant competing in the European Cup for the first time an Ararat distinguished themselves by defeating Viking Stavanger and Cork Celtic before bowing out at the quarter-final stage to mighty Bayern Munich. Ararat won the Soviet Cup again in 1975 defeating Zorya Voroshilovgrad in the final but the following years runners up positions in both the League and the Cup signalled the end of a golden era for the “Wings of the Soviets”. Their second round defeat to West Ham United in the 1975/76 Cup Winners Cup tournament was their last foray into European competition for two decades and not before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a return to Armenian football.

The Armenian League started in 1992 and Ararat won the League and Cup double the following season. However, it has proven to be their last championship to date and despite four more Armenian Cup successes in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2008 the league has been dominated by city rivals FC Pyunik who have won 14 of the 25 Armenian championships since independence. Ararat’s last sortie into European competition was in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup but they lost ignominiously to Swiss side Bellinzona, 4-1 over two legs, in the first qualifying round.

This season has been a real struggle for the once mighty White Eagles and they have propped up the six team league since the opening rounds. With such a small number of teams it means clubs play each other six times in a season and although they technically occupy a relegation spot the Armenian First League is made up almost entirely of reserve sides. Of the two first teams in the second tier, Erebuni will finish a distant last and the other side, Kotayk Abovian pulled out of the league and their results were expunged.

Between 1971 and 2015 Ararat played their home games at the incredible Hrazdan Stadium, hewn into a hillside its tiers lurch above the cityscape and its four iconic floodlight pylons can be seen for miles around. The ownership of the stadium fell into private hands and after a falling out between the owners and the Armenian FA over a proposed renovation programme to obtain a UEFA four star rating, no one has played there and, indeed, even the pitch was ripped up and not replaced. Since their eviction Ararat have played at the equally superb Republican Stadium but recently, due to poor results and lack of support, the more modest Ministry of Finance Stadium (also known as the Mika Stadium) has hosted their matches.

Despite free entry to the Mika there is scant interest in today’s game against FC Shirak from Gyumri. Officially 500 are in attendance although in reality less than half that figure was present, football fans in Armenia are apathetic due to constant allegations of bribery and corruption in the game. Seemingly more interest and excitement was obtained at the adjacent sports hall for an important Futsal match. Ararat look a poor side and the visitors, backed by a small band of supporters who have made the trip to the capital, soon rack up a three goal lead. Ararat did pull one back just before halftime but rarely threatened a comeback until an injury time goal made the final score seem closer than it actually was.

It is an enduring tragedy of Armenian football that its best loved and traditionally its best supported club languish so far away from their competitors. Sadly with finance a problem and a dispute between Ararat’s owners and the Armenian FA, it would seem that position is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

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Saturday May 20th 2017 – Armenian Premier League

FC Ararat Yerevan 2 (Safaryan 44, S.Mkrtchyan 90)

FC Shirak Gyumri 3 (Hovsepyan 7, Prljevic 36, Poghosyan 43)

Att: 217 (head count, officially 500 present, played at the MF Mika Stadium)

No admission charged, no programme

Gallery

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More Northern Skies

The days before and after any Swedish Groundhop offer a plethora of options for those wishing to extend there stay in this summer football season part of the world.

For the few that remained in Sweden Kim Hedwall organised a minibus to take in a couple of Monday matches on what was a National Day holiday in his homeland.

First up was a pit stop at Enköping to admire the modern and attractive stadium of the two local clubs. Enavallen hosts both Enköping SK, who were an Allsvenskan club as recently as 2003, and Enköping IS. The main stand is visually very pleasing and Kim has mooted this as a potential hop venue of the future.

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A few minutes later we arrive at fourth tier side Håbo FF and their Björkvallen ground is already teeming with people on this glorious afternoon. The Swedish national anthem is sung beautifully by a young lady before over 600 people watched the local side rattle in four hugely impressive first half goals. The visitors from IK Franke rallied briefly in the second half but a quick fire double from Håbo one of which saw the visiting keeper dismissed ensured the points were staying deservedly with the host club. Björkvallen is a relatively basic Idrottsplats style ground, the officials and visitors change in a building outside the ground for example, and these limitations could hamper the progress of this rapidly rising club.

Sweden Div. 2 Norra Svealand (06/06/2016)

Håbo FF 6 (Kristiansson 19, 29, 82, Aras 23, Danilo 32, Yilmaz pen 81)
IK Franke 2 (Applefeldt 51, pen 71)

Att: 615 (at Björkvallen)

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After heading south we arrive at the impressive Södertalje Futbollarena which plays host to two clubs with their roots firmly in the Assyrian community which first starting arriving in the city in 1967, fleeing from conflicts in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Over 40% of the cities’ population is from an immigrant background so it is no surprise that two clubs, Assyriska (1973) and Syrianska (1977) have flourished, the later enjoying three seasons in the Allsvenskan. The stadium was opened in 2005 and boasts one enormous stand with open terracing on the opposite side and a segregated section for away fans. This afternoon’s match is a Superettan game between Assyriska and GAIS from Gothenburg. A modest crowd gathers for this game and a well contested encounter is enjoyed by all especially when the hosts level with an injury time penalty when the GAIS captain inexplicably concedes an unnecessary foul.

Sweden Superettan (06/06/2016)

Assyriska FF 2 (Söderström 34, pen 90)
GAIS 2 (Singh 21, Moënza 63)

Att: 1,308 (at Södetalje Futbollarena)

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Tuesday evening sees a Tunnelbana ride east to the suburb of Hässelby where you will find Grimsta Idrottsplats home of IF Brommapojkarna, officially the world’s biggest football club! This claim is based on over 3,000 registered players for its 250 teams! The team have suffered a double relegation since the heady days of a return to Allsvenskan in 2012. Now in Division 1 Norra the team is coached by former Aston Villa legend Olof Mellberg. They sit top of the division and on tonight’s evidence of a totally dominant performance against Akropolis, few would seriously bet against a swift return to the Superettan. Grimsta was opened in 1963 and despite periodic refurbishment had always had just one stand running the length of one side of the pitch. Now though a new main stand is partially erected on the opposite side of the ground. Now looking like a proper stadium rather than an idrottsplats hopefully the investment will see BP return to the higher levels of the Swedish game.

Sweden Div.1 Norra (07/06/2016)

IF Brommapojkarna 3 (Brandeborn 32, 74, Gustafsson pen 90)
Akropolis IF 0

Att: 738 (Grimsta IP)

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The trip then heads to Finland and a much cooler Helsinki, draped in heavy cloud it’s not looking its finest when the top level Veikkausliiga runs a full midweek programme on Thursday evening. The game of choice is IFK Helsingfors against PK-35 Vantaa now managed by Shefki Kuqi. IFK, or Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna i Helsingfors, are an old club having been formed in 1897. Known by the nickname “Stadens stolthet” (The city’s pride) the club were originally solely patronised by the Swedish speaking middle classes while the Finns traditionally support their great rivals HJK. After seven Mestaruussarja titles IFK suffered severe financial problems in 2002 and had to take the place of their reserve team at level five. To their immense credit they have regrouped, opened a share issue for fans to invest, and have ultimately returned to the top flight after winning the Ykkönen Liga in 2014. IFK were playing at the Töölön Pallokenttä but following top flight promotion the club have groundshared with HJK at the 10,700 seater Sonera Stadium which is adjacent to the Olympic Stadium.

Tonight’s game, however, is a poor one for the hosts despite some great vocal backing from their supporters. Vantaa are two goals to the good, including one from the manager’s kid brother Njazi before IFK even muster a chance. The hosts pull one back in the second half but really look like a side who don’t believe they can score a second time.

Finland Veikkausliiga (09/06/2016)

IFK Helsingfors 1 (Salmikivi 53)
PK-35 Vantaa 2 (Kaufmann 12, Kuqi 41)

Att: 2,816 (at Sonera Stadion)

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Another day, another country and a ferry crossing the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn and two games in the murky nether regions of Estonian football.

The first game takes place in the 3G ground adjacent to the Kalevi Keskstaadion, home of Estonian Esiliiga (second tier) side JK Tallinna Kalev. It’s a fifth tier match tonight between Castovanni Eagles and JK Retro who are an interesting team almost entirely made up of ex Estonian internationals including 89 cap Andrei Stepanov who once played two minutes for Watford. They are managed by Erko Saviauk who himself won 60 caps and play purely for fun these days. This point is stretched as they start with ten men until 45 year old, 3 cap, Arvo Kraam arrived belatedly in a speeding taxi 25 minutes into the first half! With even numbers the ageing but more skilful veterans begin to outclass their younger, fitter opponents and eventually claim a deserved victory with a late winner.

Estonia III Liga (10/06/2016)

Tallinna Castovanni Eagles 1 (Naariste 66)
JK Retro 2 (Rist 60, Silkin 85)

Att: 9 (at Kalevi Keskstaadion Kunstmuruväljak)

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Saturday brings a 12pm kick off in the Wismari Staadion, a short walk past the magnificent Aleksandr Nevski cathedral. The Wismari is normally the home of JK Tallinna Legion, however, this match is between Tallinna Dünamo and Lokomotiv Jöhvi who have travelled some 100 miles for this fourth level match. The pitch is again 3G though the surface is in poor condition and the surroundings are vastly inferior to those of the previous evening. Lokomotiv are far too strong for the side from the capital and win easily, barely breaking sweat.

Estonia II Liga (11/06/2016)

Tallinna Dünamo 0
Lokomotiv Jöhvi 4 (Vender 36, Makarov 44, Smirnov 64, Bazjukin 68)

Att:41 (at Wismari Staadion)

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There you have it a thoroughly enjoyable extension to the annual pilgrimage to Sweden. Great part of the world to enjoy summer football on warm days!