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Home from home: the football club giving Moscow’s Armenian diaspora something to cheer

An upstart new club in Russia’s capital, Ararat Moscow is a team put together by and appealing to the city’s large Armenian diaspora. What role does football play in community today?

29 May 2018

On a warm May evening in Moscow, the city’s football history rubbed up against something new. In the south of the city, Torpedo Moscow, an historic club linked to car factories in the Avtozavodskaya district, faced Ararat Moscow, a new club founded to represent the Armenian diaspora in Russia’s capital. The result was 1-1, a draw. For Ararat, the match had few real consequences. They had already been promoted as champions of Russia’s third tier, while Torpedo, former champions of the Soviet Union, continue to struggle with crippling financial troubles.

Ararat, the third tier champions, were formed just over a year ago, in March 2017. They were born out of a series of meetings between Moscow’s Armenian business elites, the Association of Moscow’s Armenian Youth (AAMM) and Aram Gabrelyanov, the founder of Russian tabloid website Life News. Their mission was to represent Moscow’s Armenian diaspora through the medium of football, providing a team around which it could coalesce. In a nod to the club’s standing within the community, the name Ararat references the heraldic mountain of Armenian national identity and the home country’s most famous football club, Ararat Yerevan.

The founders of Ararat aimed to fill a lacunae within Armenian society in Moscow. Across the city, there are numerous restaurants, food stores and cultural centres that cater to the diaspora, but few sporting opportunities. Sport in Moscow is dominated by the four institutions of Spartak, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Dinamo; traditionally, the talented stars of diaspora communities have gone on to represent one of these clubs. Aleksandr Samedov, a Russian international footballer of Azerbaijani descent, currently plays for Spartak Moscow, alongside Georgii Dhizkiia, whose parents were born in the separatist enclave Abkhazia. In recent history, there have been few opportunities for diaspora communities to represent themselves on the pitch.

In recent history, there have been few opportunities for diaspora communities to represent themselves on the pitch

In the club’s hotel, ahead of their match with Strogino at the end of the 2017-18 season, Vage Sarkisyan, the club’s fan liaison officer, outlined to me Ararat’s importance for Moscow’s Armenian community. “There were a lot of organisations and clubs for Armenians in Moscow but not any sporting societies,” he said. “There are even a lot of teams like ours in a lot of countries, in Iran in Estonia, and it’s really good that there is now a team like this in Moscow. In Moscow, especially, there is huge support for us.” Artyom Avanesyan, an 18-year-old attacking midfielder for the club, agreed with Sarkisyan. He said: “In general, it’s great that there is a club like Ararat. It seems to me that a lot of fans support us and that’s very important. People in Armenia even watch our live commentaries.”

The club’s first task was to attract a set of players willing to play for the team. Without seasoned professionals, their attempts to win promotion from the third tier would have ran up against difficulties in the gnarled outposts of the Moscow leagues. The club, though, were smart. Perhaps guided by the involvement of Armenian journalists and businesspeople, they made a couple of signings that brought the club to the attention of national media: Roman Pavlyuchenko, one of Russia’s stars at the 2008 European Championships, and Marat Izmailov, a former international and midfielder for Portugal’s famous Sporting Lisbon. Recruiting these two players signalled that Ararat were serious about their ambitions to progress through the leagues. They also brought excitement, and fans. As Gosha Makovetsky, Ararat’s press-attache, tells me, “a lot of people came specially to see Izmailov and Pavlyuchenko.”

Wearing the orange of Ararat, Pavlyuchenko and Izmailov also offered some clarity on Ararat’s standing within the Armenian community. This was to be a club that represented the diaspora without being limited to the diaspora on the pitch. Tigran Madoyan, an Ararat supporter and coordinator of the fan sector, delineates the club’s position. “I’m an Armenian and the club was founded by Armenians and for Armenians, so that’s probably the main reason for my support,” he says. “It’s just national pride. But the club hasn’t tried to be solely Armenian and solely for Armenians. For us, it’s not like only Armenians can play. It’s an international team. There are Russians, Greeks, Uzbeks among our fans. It’s just good company and good people.”

“It’s an international team. There are Russians, Greeks, Uzbeks among our fans. It’s just good company and good people”

Around Russia, though, many have been dismissive of the club. In the national sports media, Ararat are often treated as a gimmick, an expensive plaything for rich businessman. In some instances, the club’s players have been greeted with hostility, even racism. During the game against Torpedo, a club known for its right wing fanbase, some of Ararat’s ethnic Armenian players were greeted with monkey chants as they made their way to the bench. They respond by pointing to the badges on their shirts and to the Armenian flags that a few Ararat fans had unveiled in the away terraces. When asked about this, Makovetsky was keen to impress that these incidents are the exception. “Racism? No. Only at Torpedo. Across Russia, in the cities that we’ve been to, it’s all been great.” Maybe the fans of struggling Torpedo were jealous of a new team with star players, good finances and an increasing number in the win column.

Now, for Ararat, questions turn to the future. The players have proven themselves capable of competing at a higher level. But there are murmurs that the club’s hierarchy may be planning to uproot to Armenia. Samvel Karapetyan, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who was appointed chairman of Ararat Moscow in November, has already made inroads into Armenian football. At the beginning of 2018, he took over FC Avan Academy, a club in the Armenian second tier, renaming them FC Ararat-Moscow Yerevan. There are some suggestions that this club could incorporate the original Ararat Moscow and compete in the Armenian Premier League, but, according to a source, the idea has not been welcomed by a lot of the club’s stakeholders. Avanesyan, the club’s attacking midfielder, has said that “everyone hopes the club sticks around.” And asked where Ararat Moscow will be in five years, Makovetsky answers, with a smile and a laugh, “we don’t even know where we will be tomorrow.”

Moving to Armenia, while it might prove financially beneficial, would distance the club from its original mission. It would once again leave Moscow’s Armenian diaspora without specific representation. Many, like Madoyan, would go back to Spartak, CSKA, Lokomotiv or Dinamo. This successful year would become an irrelevance, subsumed into the future in Yerevan. The chants of “ooh, ooh, Ararat”, the Armenian flags and the support of the community would be lost. As Madoyan concludes: “You know, there are a lot of Armenians in Moscow. The club is a great opportunity to get Armenian youth together in the same place for football, not just at concerts or at circuses, but at football.” Without Ararat, or with an Ararat viewable only on an internet stream from Yerevan, that would fade away.

Text: Eliot Rothwell
Top image: Leonid Sorokin