By Alastair Watt –
The expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams has left many fans and pundits fearing that quantity will win over quality at France 2016, but in the Caucasus there are no such concerns. For Armenia, Georgia and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan, a first ever appearance at a major finals is a more plausible prospect than ever before.
Moving away from the much-loved 16-team format, UEFA President Michel Platini has insisted quite unconvincingly that “Europe has 24 good teams” and, sounding not unlike an overly liberal headmistress wading unwantedly into a discussion about the annual school sports day, that “we want to increase participation.”
The new qualification route divides 53 countries into nine groups, with the top two in each going to the finals automatically. That successful eighteen will be joined by the third-placed side with the most points, while the remaining 8 countries will compete in play-offs for the final four available berths.
Cynics, and even football followers without a soupcon of cynicism to their name, are crying foul. It’s all about money and political favours, they claim. Before this increase, the tournament’s last re-shuffle came for England 1996 when, to accommodate new independent nations from the break-ups of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia respectively, the format grew from eight teams to 16. That was perfectly palatable, but the latest re-arranging seems unnecessary especially to the Observer’s Daniel Taylor who, in his opinion piece shortly after the announcement of the seedings for Euro 2016 qualification warned of “18 months of drudgery.” He despaired at the prospect of a potential play-off between Romania and Belarus while listing several other supposedly unworthy Eastern European concoctions.
In the comments section, one reply to Taylor’s article suggested that, in many other parts of Europe, the prospect of Northern Ireland v Wales was similarly unappealing.
The European Championships is an already exceptionally rich tournament as Euro 2012 earned UEFA over 1 billion Euros in commercial revenue and the expanded tournament will inevitably raise more.
UEFA paid out almost 200 million Euros in prize money at the 2012 edition. Even the Republic of Ireland, well-beaten in all three of their group matches, went away with an appearance fee of 8 million Euros.
For the Irish, that might have just about paid for their Italian coaching staff. But for Armenia or Georgia, if their federations used the money responsibly (not something either have vast experience of doing), that could revolutionise facilities and sustain league football for several seasons.
Back to the Future? – The Caucasus at the Euros
Should either Armenia, Azerbaijan or Georgia reach France it won’t be the first time that the region has made its mark on the Euros. In total, six players from the Caucasus have starred in the final of a European Championships which is six more than the United Kingdom.
The Caucasus imprint on the Championships dates back to its inaugural year as Slava Metreveli, a Georgian, scored in the USSR’s 2-1 victory over Yugoslavia in the 1960 final. Two other Georgians – Mikheil Meskhi and Givi Chokheli – also played on that victorious day at the Parc des Princes, one of the host stadia for Euro 2016.
Georgians again made an impact on the tournament twelve years later as Revaz Dzodzuashvili and Murtaz Khurtsilava were named in the official Euro 1972 team of the tournament, while Azerbaijan’s Anatoliy Banishevskiy also featured in a 3-0 loss to West Germany in the final.
Over forty years on, could this dormant Caucasus connection to the tournament be revived? Futbolgrad looks at the prospects for all three nations.
Georgia – Realistic hopes, or a mere Georgian Dream?
The post-Soviet era has not been kind to Georgian football. Since an impressive Euro 96 qualifying campaign in which they thumped Wales 5-0 and finished third behind eventual winners Germany and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria, the national game has withered into a frail condition. Stadiums are empty or decrepit (Read Futbolgrad’s article Georgian Football’s Grounds for Concern here), often both, and even the normally vociferous and patriotic support for the Georgian national team is dwindling as exhibited by the slender 20,000 crowd which turned out for a somewhat heroic 0-0 draw with France last September.
Nevertheless, it was less than three years ago that Georgia defeated the then world’s 9th best team Croatia in Tbilisi in front of over 50,000 fans – a result and a turnout which the aforementioned Taylor perhaps overlooked when listing the Georgians alongside the likes of San Marino and Andorra as no-hopers, even for the new 24-team Euros.
Radio Commersant’s Malkhaz Gedevanishvili believes that “UEFA’s politics gives small countries a chance, and us Georgians, just like every other time, think this can be our time.”
Gedevanishvili then offered a glimpse of the potential impact of qualification by speculating that, “There would be a revolution not only in Georgian football, but Georgian sport in general. Being part of Europe’s biggest sporting event means we would be part of something important.”
Financially, the Georgian radio journalist believes that Euro 2016 offers his country a chance of football revival. He finished: “It would give motivation to young players, and would also see more businesses investing in football which is currently a huge problem in the country.”
There is a cautious murmur of excitement about the future as Georgia’s under-19s reached their first ever European Championships last summer, and continued to arouse somewhat premature talk of a “golden generation” by eliminating the Netherlands in the first qualifying stage for this summer’s tournament.
Temuri Ketsbaia’s first team have admittedly toiled of late though, with August’s 1-0 friendly loss in Kazakhstan the nadir of their regression which sees them in pot 5 (of 6) for Euro 2016. However, Vitesse Arnhem’s Guram Kashia and Dnipro’s Jaba Kankava supply a defensive resilience which, when supported by the attacking guile of Spartak Moscow loanee Jano Ananidze and Ukraine-based Sandro Kobakhidze, makes Ketsbaia’s men the pot five team to avoid.
Armenia – A Football Generation Carrying High Expectation
Amid all the skepticism, one of few common arguments for the Euros expansion has been that world-class players from smaller footballing nations may be able to play at a top international tournament. It comes too late for the likes of Jari Litmanen or Ryan Giggs, but not for Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Read Futbolgrad’s article Henrikh Mkhitaryan – Armenia’s Golden Nugget here).
Mkhitaryan, who joined Borussia Dortmund last summer, is without question a player who would befit a European Championships, and he spearheads a nation that appears to be on the cusp of something special. Victories over Denmark, Bulgaria and Czech Republic, as well as a 2-2 draw in Italy, in their latest World Cup qualifying campaign followed a third-placed finish in their Euro 2012 attempt.
Spartak Moscow striker Yura Movsisyan, the Baku-born Armenian-American, has been traumatising goalkeepers and defences across Russia where he tops the Premier League scoring charts at the winter break with 12 goals this season.
Movsisyan’s teammate for club and country, the Istanbul-born winger Aras Ozbiliz, who started his career at Ajax, completes an exciting triumvirate of talent, one which gives Armenia a splendid chance of obtaining at least a play-off place.
Gevorg Ghazaryan, sports editor of eMedia.am, revealed that expectations are very high in Yerevan. “To reach the Euro 2016 finals is the only goal for this team. Any other outcome would be marked as a failure”, he stated.
Football in Armenia has been consistently popular despite many barren decades before and after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. Ghazaryan explained: “Everyone is now waiting for something special. We have done great in the last few years but now it’s time to go a step further. My grandpa and his generation remember a national triumph – Ararat Yerevan winning the USSR Championship in 1973 – and now it’s our (generation’s) turn.”
With an estimated quarter of a million Armenians living in France, filling stadiums for their matches in 2016 would not be a problem should a maiden qualification be achieved.
Imagining the eventuality of Armenia at France 2016, Ghazaryan speculated: “I am sure there would be huge support, even comparable with the like of Germany and England. We had a large following for that Euro 2012 play-off decider in Ireland, where the diaspora is small so in France it would be massive.”
Azerbaijan – In Vogts they trust
Even before the draw in Nice on February 23, one team Armenia know they will not be facing is neighboring Azerbaijan with whom they have been on adversarial terms since the war (Feb 1988 – May 1994) over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. For safety reasons, UEFA ensure that the two countries cannot meet, an arrangement which until recently was in place for Georgia and Russia as well.
Azerbaijan can consider themselves fortunate to have been omitted from Taylor’s aforementioned list of also-rans. Of the three South Caucasus countries, the Azerbaijanis have the richest league, the best football infrastructure, but the poorest record as a national team.
However their German head coach Berti Vogts, using his experience of guiding a slumbering Scotland to a Euro 2004 play-off place, has lifted Azerbaijan to the realms of respectability and, much to the concern of their neighbors, above Georgia in the FIFA World Rankings.
Although he was once pelted with missiles by the national media, brazen Berti oversaw draws with Israel and Russia in their World Cup qualification group, where the energy-rich Caspian Sea state finished fourth – a national record.
Heavy investment into the Azerbaijani league has, however, so far not yielded much domestic talent as the funds are used to lure players and coaches from abroad.
The 24-year old striker Vagif Javadov, for whom Dutch side FC Twente once paid over 1 million Euros, turns out for title-chasing Inter Baku and is the closest thing Vogts has to a star player.
When Vogts, now 67-years old, had his contract renewed last December, the AFFA president Rovnag Abdullayev set vague targets for the German.
He told UEFA’s website “We are not setting specific goals but want to see more promising players brought in to the team”. Not quite dismissing 2016 altogether, but already looking further ahead, Abdullayev hinted that their long-term focus is on Euro 2020 where the tournament will be hosted not by one or two countries, but a dozen cities.
Azerbaijan are one of over 30 football federations to express an interest in hosting but any such hopes may have been dashed by UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino’s clarification that there would be a maximum flight time of two hours between host cities.
Nevertheless, speaking about Vogts’ long-term mandate, Abdullayev said: “Baku is looking to stage games at Euro 2020 so we would like to perform decently in this competition.”
Among the Caucasus trio it is the Armenians, ranked 30th in the world, who are the clear favourites to make the Euros breakthrough but the expansion is daring all three nations to dream of playing under the European football spotlight.
As the aforementioned Taylor quite rightly suggested, for the big nations in Western Europe the potential for tedium may be substantial. However, as they await news of the Euro 2016 draw in this distant mountainous corner of the continent, a sense of excitement for the beautiful game has been re-awoken.
Alastair Watt is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains. You can follow Alastair on Twitter @Tbilisidon