Phoenix (FC Pyunik)

FC Pyunik have achieved so much in a relatively short period of time having been formed as recently as 1992. Initially they were called Homenetmen Yerevan and in their first season they shared the first Armenian Premier League title with Shirak Gyumri 

In 1995 Homenetmen rebranded as Pyunik which is the Armenian word for Phoenix. However, the club ran into problems and did not compete in the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The club were reborn in 2001 with a new owner, Ruben Hayrapetyan. Rather than rejoin the League in the second tier Pyunik absorbed First League champions FC Armenicum so they were restored to the Premier League. Pyunik immediately won their fourth league title finishing well clear of runners up Zvartnots-AAL. 

It was the start of huge success for Pyunik, the club’s ethos of signing the best Armenian players from other clubs as well as quality players from West Africa. They would win ten straight league titles between 2001 and 2010. They have only won one championship since, in 2014/15, but to highlight their domestic dominance their 14 titles is ten more than the next nearest challenger, Shirak Gyumri. Pyunik have also won eight Armenian Cups and nine Super Cups.

Their academy system produced Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He joined the the club aged 6 in 1995 and made his professional debut at 17 in 2006. He would join FC Metalurh Donetsk in 2009. 

The club played at the massive Hrazdan Stadium until 1999 when they moved to the Republican Stadium. When the Republican was being redeveloped Pyunik used their own stadium, a 770 seater stadium which was built in 2004 after they acquired the former Kilikia Sports Complex. Since 2013 their first team games have been played at the Yerevan Football Academy Centre on the outskirts of the city. 

The clubs’ reserve side, Pyunik-2, have won the Armenian First League four times although not since 2007. They play their home games at the eye catchingly quirky Pyunik Stadium and it is here that we watch them take on Armenian First league leaders, FC Banants-2. The First League is made up entirely of reserve teams other than Erebuni who prop up the table. Banants were eight points clear of second place Pyunik at the start of play and tear into the hosts from the off. A hugely entertaining game ensues but the hosts are never really in the contest. Over 100 people watch the game, the ground has a pitch length seated stand with a media stand in the centre. It’s a decent facility and well worth a visit for a second tier game. 

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Armenian First League (22/05/2017)

FC Pyunik II  2 (Khatuev 17, Hovhannisyan 89)

FC Banants II 4 (Hambardzumyan 8, 20, Melqonyan 81, Safaryan 84)

Att:119 (at Pyunik Stadium) 

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Power and Motion (FC Dinamo Tbilisi)

When I was a kid, Dinamo Tbilisi were a real European powerhouse, state sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs they had some magical players that formed the back bone of the Soviet national team. The likes of Aleksandre Chivadze, David Kipiani, Vitaly Dareselia, Tengiz Sulakveledze and Ramaz Shengelia won many Soviet caps between them and four of them would win Soviet Union Footballer of the year award between 1977 and 1981. Their zenith in European competition was their 1981 Cup Winners Cup Final win over East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. Under respected coach Nodar Akhalkatsi Dinamo had dispatched the likes of Kastoria, Waterford United, West Ham United and Feyenoord before goals from Dareselia and Vladimir Gutsaev saw them triumph, 2-1, in front of a meagre crowd of 4,750 people in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion.

From the formation of the Soviet Top League in 1936 to the break up of the Union in 1991, Dinamo were one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the top flight, the others being Dynamo Moscow and Dynamo Kiev. Dinamo Tbilisi’s undoubted star player in those early years was Boris Paichadze who scored over 100 goals for them and was voted Georgia’s greatest player of the 20th century. Dinamo’s home stadium is named after him and his statue stands outside the entrance gates. Incidentally Dinamo or Dynamo as a prefix for football clubs comes from a corruption of Greek (dynamis) and Latin (motio) words for “Power in Motion” and was first coined by the Belgian inventor of the electrical generator, Zenobe Gramme.

Since their 70’s heyday Dinamo continue to produce wonderfully talented players who progress to a bigger stage like Temuri Ketsbaia (Newcastle United), Shota Arvaladze (Rangers), Kaka Kaladze (AC Milan), Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City) and Levan Kobiashvili who enjoyed an extensive career in the Bundesliga with Freiburg, Schalke and Hertha and is the only Georgian player to date to win 100 international caps.

The Georgian Premier League, now sponsored by Erovnuli, has changed to a spring to autumn season from this season after a mini transitional campaign in 2016. The transitional season reduced the number of clubs in the top tier from 12 to 10. It is interesting to note that during Soviet rule a number of the smaller Tbilisi clubs like Lokomotiv, Tolia, SKIF and the cities’ oldest club, Shevardeni, competed in a separate Georgian League.

We arrived in Tbilisi for the 13th round of games and an enticing looking game against defending champions FC Samtredia, the most westerly located club in the top division. On a rainy evening a small crowd gathers at this vast stadium which can hold 55,000 spectators. Originally Dinamo played at the old Central Stadium which could only accommodate 35,000 so with the club’s golden era of the 1970’s a bigger venue was needed. The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Dinamo Stadium, built on the same site, was opened in 1976 and designed by architect Gia Kurdiani. It could hold 75,000 people and contemporary reports suggest an attendance of 110,000 watched Dinamo’s epic win over Liverpool in 1979. In 1995 the stadium was renamed in honour of Georgia’s greatest player Boris Paichadze and an international match against Germany that year also reputedly saw 110,000 gather.

In 2006 the stadium was turned into an all-seater arena style stadium with a drastically reduced capacity of 54,549. The stadium looks to have barely 600 people present (although the official gate says 1,200) all are housed in the main stand except for a small band of Dinamo ultras in the far corner who bang drums, light a flare or two and display banners supporting the disputed territory of Abkhazia. About fifteen minutes into the game and the police scurry towards one end of the stadium, suddenly around 50 fans from Samtredia arrive. Sadly a handful of them choose to display an “M13 Ultras” banner with a prominent swastika. Disappointingly there was also no attempt to remove it.

The hosts play with no little swagger in the first half and establish a comfortable looking two goal lead. However, the reigning champions come out for the second half in fighting mood and soon level the scores. However, their good work is undone when the best player on the pitch, Dinamo’s Bachana Arabuli scored in injury time with a truly monumental header. An exciting game in a magnificent stadium, it’s a shame so few pay the 65p required to watch this grand and historic club.

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Sunday May 21st 2017 – Georgia Erovnuli Liga 

Dinamo Tbilisi 3 (Arabuli 26, 90, Lochoshvili 37)

FC Samtredia 2 (Mtchelishvili 63, Datunaishvili 76)

Att: 1,200 (at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena)

Admission: 2 Lei (65p), programme 1 Lei (32p)

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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

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