Ararat Yerevan – The Story of a Soviet Champion

Ararat Yerevan – The Story of a Soviet Champion

Manuel Veth –

It is a fascinating picture. Franz Beckenbauer leads his Bayern side into a packed Hrazdan Stadion, which is located on the outskirts of Yerevan the capital of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The year is 1975 and Bayern are about to meet Ararat Yerevan in the quarterfinals of the European Cup.

What is fascinating about the picture is the sheer scale of the stadium and the number of people packed into the gigantic Hrazdan Stadion. Then there is the apparent awe in the face of Beckenbauer, as the camera has captured his face looking up into the stands around him. The official attendance that evening was 70,000 but looking closely at the picture fans can be spotted sitting all along the hillside that reaches up on the backside of the Hrazdan.

Built into what is almost a natural amphitheatre in the Hrazdan gorge just below the hill of Tsitsernakaberd, which also hosts the Armenian Genocide memorial complex, the Hrazdan was opened in 1970 and at the time was one of the most modern stadiums in the Soviet Union. Its location at the bottom of the hill meant that crowds could gather on the hillside to watch football games from a distance like it was the case for the game against Bayern München.

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Fully packed to the rafters with many fans outside waiting to see their team take on the defending European Cup champions it must have been a magnificent and humbling sight for the visiting Bayern team. Furthermore, the noise must have been fearsome. Unlike the stadium atmosphere in many western countries today, where capos and ultras create a beautiful but organised support the stadiums located in the Soviet Caucasus, made noise in a different fashion.

Ararat Yerevan – The 1973 Soviet Champions

Judging from old video reels of the Soviet Vysshaya Liga stadiums in places like Tbilisi, where Dinamo played, or Yerevan, the home of Ararat, were more like cauldrons of noise rather than theatres directed by the masses. A constant roar accompanied the games played in the Soviet Caucasus a noise that must have been exhilarating for the home team and somewhat frightening for the visitors.

One example is Ararat Yerevan’s home game against during the 1973 Soviet Vysshaya Liga season against Zenit Leningrad. Ararat won that game against Zenit to seal the Soviet championship. A constant roar followed every action with constant Ararat, Ararat, Ararat chants accompanying the game.

It was that game against Zenit that led to the eventual photograph taken on March 19, 1975. Almost a year and a half after Ararat had won the Soviet Vysshaya Liga they faced Bayern in the European Cup. The reason for the delay in the game between the Soviet and German champions was simple. Back during the time of the Soviet Union, the league calendar ran within the annual calendar from spring to fall. As a result, the champions of the USSR did not represent their country in UEFA competitions until the halfway point of the following league season.

In the case of the game against Bayern, in fact, Ararat had been long dethroned by Dynamo Kyiv, which had won the 1974 Soviet championship in the late fall. Ararat finished fifth in the standings that season.

Nonetheless, Bayern faced a good side in the quarterfinals of the European Cup. The club had not only won the championship in 1973 but also the Soviet Cup that same year. A feat that Ararat repeated in 1975. The legendary Nikita Simonyan coached the 1973 team. Born in Armavir Simonyan was an ethnic Armenian but he played his entire professional career in Moscow where he became a legend playing for Spartak Moscow.

It was also at Spartak that Simonyan began his coaching career. As a manager, he won the Soviet Vysshaya Liga twice with Spartak in 1962 as well as 1969 and also added three Soviet Cup wins to his name (1963, 1965 and 1971). At Ararat, Simonyan built a team that included the likes of Eduard Markarov, Alyosha Abramyan, Aleksandr Kovalenko, Oganes Sanasanyan, Levon Ishtoyan, Arkadi Andreasyan and Norair Mesropyan.

Eduard Markarov, in particular, stood out. Born in Baku, the 164cm small forward started his career at Torpedo Armavir before joining Neftchi Baku in 1961. Today a transfer between Neftchi and Ararat would be unthinkable as Azerbaijan and Armenia are deeply entrenched in a conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Although there was a healthy rivalry between the clubs of the three Soviet Caucasus Republics – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – Markarov had little problem making the transfer from Baku to Yerevan to play for Ararat. For Ararat, in fact, signing Markarov was a major achievement, after all the three times Soviet national team forward managed to score 88 goals in 241 games for Neftchi.

At Ararat, he would add another 41 goals in 119 games. Markarov would eventually finish his career with 129 goals, which together with the Georgian forward Avtandil Gogoberidze puts him in fourth among all-time goalscorers in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga. Markarov was supported by the midfielder Andreasyan, who was also born in Baku but played his entire top-flight career at Ararat.

Both Markarov and Andreasyan would also play significant roles for the club. With 13 goals Andreasyan was the club’s top scorer during the 1973 season, closely followed by Markarov, who had managed ten goals that year. They were without a doubt the club’s biggest stars, and both would also play significant roles in the club’s European Cup campaign that kicked off in the fall of 1974 – almost an entire year after the club had become champions of the Soviet Union.

Ararat’s European Cup run

In the first round, which kicked of on September 18, 1974, Ararat faced the Norwegian champions Viking from Stavanger. The Norwegians proofed no obstacle for the Soviet champions, however. Markarov scored twice (51′ and 81′) to secure Ararat a 2-0 on the road victory. The striker was also on form two weeks later as he scored three times in Ararat’s 4-2 home victory at the Hrazdan – the five goals would ultimately make him top scorer of the competition together with Bayern’s Gerd Müller.

Then in the second round, Ararat’s next victim were the Irish side, Cork. Once again Ararat had to play first on the road and thanks to goals by Oganez Zanazanyan (25′) and Nikolai Kazaryan (65′) managed to go up 2-0. Bobby Tambling then gave the Irish a lifeline in the 89′ minute when he made it 2-1 – a lifeline that was to short to manage any escape as Ararat hammered Cork Celtic 5-0 at home at the Hrazdan.

It was the last international game under the guidance of head coach Simonyan. At the end of the 1974 season, the championship winning coach packed his bags and was replaced by Viktor Maslov. Considered one of the most influential Soviet coaches of all time Maslov was the first to experiment with players nutritions and according to the English football writer, Jonathan Wilson also invented the 4-4-2 formation along with the notions of pressing, which could suggest that he was the inventor of modern football.

Franz Beckenbauer ahead of the European Cup game between Ararat and Bayern (Photo: Zanazanyan's personal archive)

Franz Beckenbauer ahead of the European Cup game between Ararat and Bayern (Photo: Zanazanyan’s personal archive)

Before coaching at Ararat, Maslov had coached all over the Soviet Union including successful stints at Torpedo and Dynamo Kyiv where he became an influential figure to the Soviet Union’s most successful coaches Valerii Lobanovskyi. Ararat, however, would end up being his final coaching stint in his coaching career as Maslov died in 1977. At Ararat Maslov would add to his impressive tally of four Soviet championships and five Soviet Cups won with Torpedo and Dynamo Kyiv by winning a sixth overall Soviet Cup in 1975.

Maslov was also in charge by the time Bayern hosted Ararat Erevan in the quarterfinals of the European Cup. A European powerhouse the Bavarian giants had won the competition the previous year by beating Atlético Madrid. Once again Ararat had to play first on the road travelling to the Olympiastadion in Munich Ararat faced a difficult task but for most of the 90 minutes were in the game.

In fact, it took Bayern until the 78′ minute to finally open the scoring. A pass from Gerd Müller found Uli Hoeneß open inside the box, with the back to his wall the striker turned to skip past his defender and scored with a low drive that beat the keeper at the near post. Then just five minutes later in the 83′ minute, Conny Torstensson doubled the score. With Ararat pressing deep in Bayern’s half the Bavarians were able to counter-attack and Torstensson, who was given to much room on the left, scored a wonder goal from the flank with a typical for the era toe-poke that beat Ararat’s keeper.

With two goals in the bag, Bayern seemed to have enough to go through. But the Bavarian giants still had to play at the Hrazdan, and on March 19, 1975, the 1973 Soviet champions hosted one of Europe’s most legendary clubs at the Hrazdan. We are now back to the source of this story — the very basis of the article Beckenbauer looking up taking in the noise of the crowd at the Hrazdan the intense atmosphere of a crowd that still believed in a turn-around.

That believe it must have sky-rocketed when Andreasyan scored in the 35′ minute with a header to make it 1-0 for Ararat in the second leg. “We played against Bayern Munich at Hrazdan. Both teams had all-star lineups and were very strong. We were USSR champion and won the Cup, and Bayern München had seven world champions. On that day, our stadium was bursting at the seams: there were 75,000 viewers,” Hovhannes Zanazanyan would later remember.

“The teams stood in parallel rows before the match, and Franz Beckenbauer and I stood close as the two captains. We were entering the field when he tapped me, pointed at the field and said ‘Amigo, amigo’, probably thinking that we were Spaniards, and as usual said they were going to win,” Zanazanyan would recount many years later. “I got very angry and replied in Armenian that the field was ours and so would be the victory. He tilted his head in surprise and said nothing else.”

Ararat would indeed win the match 1-0 in the end. Not enough to go through to the next round. Bayern, in the meantime, would eliminate Saint-Étienne in the semifinals and then beat Leeds United in the final to defend their title. The Bavarian giants would then add another title the following year to make it three European Cup wins in a row.

But what about the Armenians? The 1970s remain the most prominent period in the club’s history, and the 1975 Soviet Cup was the club’s last silverware during the time of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, after the collapse of communism and Armenian independence from the Soviet Union Ararat would manage just one more national championship in 1993.

In 2017/18 Ararat finished last in what was Europe’s smallest first division and were only saved from relegation as the Armenian Premier League was expanded from six to nine teams. The club also no longer plays at the Hrazdan. The giant concrete stadium with its 70,000 seats has simply become too large when it comes to top-flight Armenian football. Even the national team only plays occasionally here with most of the games now taking place at the smaller Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium.

The interior of the Hrazdan (Manuel Veth/Futbolgrad Network)

The Futbolgrad Network was able to visit the Hrazdan in 2013, and although the stadium received a €6 million facelift in 2011, this investment was not enough to repair all the damage inflicted by years of neglect. While the stands and the field now appear to be in good condition, the interior still seemed to be decaying, and the facility lacked any modern infrastructure.  Meanwhile, the parking space outside the stadium was used as a black market.

It was relatively easy to sneak into the ground as the delibated gates were left wide open. Walking through the facility the sheer size of the concrete structure showed the potential of noise that could be generated here. But at the same time, one also got a sense of sadness and nostalgia. Football nowadays in Armenia, like in many other post-Soviet Republics, is struggling to reach the status it once possessed within the Soviet Union. Hence, all that remains is the memory of a side that once went toe-to-toe against one of the giants in European football at a stadium that for one evening only seemed to have awed even the famous Franz Beckenbauer.

Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.