BURSA and YEREVAN (ArmeniaNow and AFP) —Armenia and Turkey were looking to finalize their far-reaching rapprochement effort as their leaders watched together their national soccer teams play, amid stepped up security, the second leg of a International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) World Cup qualifier last night.
Armenian President Serge Sargisian flew to the northwestern city of Bursa just four days after Turkey and Armenia, backed by world powers, signed historic deals to end decades of hostility, establish formal ties and open their border.
The protocols still need parliamentary ratifications to take effect and the process is expected to take time amid nationalist ire in both countries.
Flanked by top FIFA and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) officials, the two presidents, Sargisian and Abdullah Gul, watched from a VIP stand at Ataturk Stadium in Bursa a 10-man Turkey beating visitors from Armenia 2-0 amid a flurry of yellow and red cards distributed by the Swedish official of the match and unyielding attitudes shown by soccer players of both teams.
Despite the “first-class” reception promised by the hosts, the tension on and off the field (including the booing of Armenia’s national anthem ahead of the game, as well as reported “pop-corn and stone throwing” incidents in the direction of Armenian press crews) reflected the uneasy process that the two estranged nations have been through since Yerevan offered a fresh start to Ankara to end nearly a century of political feud between the two neighboring but not neighborly countries.
Now the qualifier played in Bursa marked the completion of a more than a year-long soccer diplomacy initiative of Sargisian who, unexpectedly for many, decided in the summer of 2008 to invite his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to Yerevan to watch the first-leg match between the two national teams at Hrazdan Stadium.
The start given to what was quickly dubbed “soccer diplomacy” was followed by a journey of more than 13 months. The process culminated in the October 10 signing of two protocols that establish diplomatic ties and aim to develop bilateral relations between the two nations still divided over dark pages in their history, primarily by the genocidal
policies of Ottoman rulers to exterminate Armenians as a race during World War I.