DIASPORA AND ARMENIAN RUGBY REVIVAL PROJECT
By David Petrosyan
Nations having an extensive Diaspora make use of this circumstance to solve their problems in various spheres. The Armenians have always believed that they are the only nation in the habit of delving into the genealogy of one or another famous person in order to find out if this person is an Armenian or not. Are there any kinship ties between us? Yet, this habit is peculiar not only to Armenians. The Irish, Welsh and Scot sport functionaries study quite shamelessly the family trees of promising football and rugby players all over Britain, so as to offer them to play in the national teams of Ireland, Wales or Scotland.
The leadership of the Armenian Rugby Federation has decided to follow this path. But let's start from the beginning.
As far back as the early 1960s, at the time of the second wave of Armenian repatriation, Jacques Aspikian arrived in his historical homeland from France and proposed that the leadership of the Sports Committee of Armenia start cultivating rugby in the country. However, the Armenian sport functionaries were carrying out the ideological instructions of Moscow too scrupulously, stating that "rugby is a bourgeois game". Aspikian did not get any support and went to neighboring Georgia, whose sport officials were evidently not so consistent in the issue of following Moscow's instructions. Moreover, at that time, rugby was gaining popularity in Russia and Ukraine. In Georgia, J. Aspikian became de facto one of those who lay the foundation of the Georgian school of rugby - undoubtedly, one of the best schools in the former USSR. Yet, he did not forget Armenia, and in 1963, on the initiative of J. Aspikian, a show rugby match was held in Yerevan with the participation of the teams of the Polytechnic and Agricultural Institutes of Tbilisi. This show match of the Georgian rugby players made a great impression on the enthusiasts of the game in Armenia. It is thanks to them that the first rugby championship of Yerevan took place in 1965. Beginning fromthe 1966-1967 season, the rugby team Dinamo (Yerevan) began to take part in the 1st League of the USSR Championship. In 1972, another Yerevan team,Spartak, took its place. The best result shown by Spartak in the competitions held in the former Soviet Union was its participation in a USSR Cup Quarter Final, i.e. among the top eight teams.
The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to entail the end of Armenian rugby, as well. The Karabakh war, the financial and economic difficulties and other problems facing the country at that time hindered the development of this game. The future of Armenian rugby appeared almost hopeless. But in 2002, the Federation of Rugby was in Armenia, with Gagik Panikian becoming its President and Petros Aslanian, a Judge of International Category,its Vice President. The Armenian Rugby Federation became a member of the Association of European Rugby (FIRA-AER), and soon, in February 2003, the FIRA-AER President, Jean-Claude Baque, and the Head of the Territorial Development Department, Robert Anthony, visited Yerevan.
During this visit to Yerevan, the management of the Armenian rugby presented to FIRA-AER heads their vision of developing this sport in the country. In the opinion of G. Panikian, the impetus behind the development of rugby in Armenia was to come from the outside, through the Diaspora, which would help it achieve success in the international arena. This was expected to subsequently improve the chances of Armenian by attracting attention within the country. The FIRA-AER representatives found these proposals interesting and promised to help.
No sooner said than done. G. Panikian conducted a PR campaign via the Internet and his personal connections, which proved successful in the sense that many in France, where there is an Armenian community of almost 500,000, were inspired upon learning of the plans of the Armenian Rugby Federation heads. Some enthusiasts not only responded to G. Panikian's appeal but also made every effort to provide the maximum support to the plans for developing rugby in Armenia. The central figures of the Armenian Diaspora of France, who gave considerable support to the first steps of Armenian rugby undergoing a revival were: Claude Avetisian, a businessman; Karbis Churekdischian, a professor microsurgeon from Dijon; and Michel Tadjian, a former member of the French national team, a European champion, and an assistant to the Minister of Interior Affairs in a previous government. It is noteworthy that M. Tadjian ran for a European Parliamentary seat during the last elections.
Thanks to their support, an Armenian national team was formed from the players of the Armenian Diaspora of France to participate in two rating tournaments of the European Rugby-7 Championship. After competing at two tournaments in 2003, the Armenian team became 20th on the rating list of 39 European teams. It was not a bad start for the beginners.
What happened in the following year was a great surprise even to many experienced experts. In 2004, the Armenian national team, mostly composed of Diasporan Armenians, was included in the Group C of the European Rugby-15 Championship and successfully played in the French city of Bauve against Israel (48-0) and Norway (36-6). These wins allowed the Armenian team to play in group B. However, the leadership of the Rugby Federation of Israel lodged an objection in connection with the fact that the documents of some persons included in the Armenian national team were not registered properly.
The objection was upheld and the Armenian and Israeli teams were to replay two matches - a home match and an away match - for the first place in the group C. The first match took place in Israel and ended in a 47-15 win of the Armenians. The return match was held in the city of Abovian (Kotayk marz) and also finished with the Armenian team victory (38-12). This time everything was all right with the documents that the officials were carefully examining. All French members of the Armenian national team had Armenian civil passports with "special status" marks. The Armenian legislation on citizenship provides for such a status, which de jure gives all the civil rights to Armenians of the Diaspora, except for universal suffrage voter's rights, and the right to land ownership.
Another remarkable aspect of the Abovian match was that the national team also consisted of two players from Armenia and three from the Georgian club "Academy" (at present, Georgia is the most "rugby playing country" of the former Soviet Union). Besides, the match between Armenia and Israel was the first international rugby match in history to be held in Armenia. However, as ever, the Armenian sport officials "distinguished themselves" by doing very little to organize the match properly. At first the Rugby Federation leadership counted on their support and was planning to hold the match in Yerevan to attract as many fans as possible to the event. But the management of the football fields of Yerevan declined to place H-shaped goals. That is why a decision was made to hold the match at the stadium of the city of Abovian, despite the fact that the field was in bad repair there. The list of the teams' players was not announced prior to the match, with the game score not being displayed on the indicator board. During the official opening ceremony, the Israeli team sang the national anthem, but the Armenian anthem coming from the loud-speakers was barely audible. Suddenly, the Armenian rugby players saved the situation by singing loudly and distinctly the national anthem of Armenia. The few fans of the Armenian team were greatly surprised as they recalled players of the Armenian national football team, who, unlike Diasporan Armenians, speak fluent Armenian but are reluctant even to imitate singing the anthem of their own country before the start of a match.
The selflessness of the Armenian rugby players and their striving for struggle were striking. Didier Donabedian, Gregorie Topal (Topalian), Frederic Boyadjian, Laurent (Lulu) Hayrapetian and Stepan Apelian composed the main attack force of the team, leaving an indelible impression. The fans especially noted Donabedian for his fine physical abilities allowing him to easily overcome the opponent's defense, as well as Gregorie Topalian (playing no 9), the organizer of attacks.
After the match, many of the Armenian rugby players could not hold back their tears of joy and invited the fans to the field for a joint celebration of the victory. This ended in jubilation of almost 1000 fans who, if memory serves me right, were never favored with such attention of sportsmen.
This rapid and impressive success of the Armenian team came as a surprise to FIRA-AER functionaries. Obviously, for this reason they made an unexpected decision, according to which the Armenian national team was to play two matches with the team of Luxembourg, the weakest one in Zone B, in order to assert its right to participate in the championship of this zone. Yet the leadership of Armenian rugby was not scared. There were four fairly good Armenian players from Argentina in, as G. Panikian put it, "the bank of players" of the team, who could be included in the team if necessary. The President of the Rugby Federation of Armenia stated that he had found another Armenian rugby player in England and he also hoped that his initiative would receive support from Armenians in the US and Australia. Interestingly enough, nearly 70 (!) players took part in the recent training of the Armenian national team in France, so the chief coach Mark Abanazian (who lives in France) had a wide choice because 30 players are usually included in a bid.
The aforementioned show that the potential prospects of the Armenian national rugby team look quite serious. Its possible rivals in the region (first of all, the teams of the post-Soviet states) have already started gathering information about this strong competitor that appeared from goodness knows where.
However, the Rugby Federation of Armenia is aware that although help provided by the Diasporan players is essential, Armenian rugby will have reall success only if things go well at home.
If rugby becomes an Olympic sport, this would in some way affect its financing from from the state budget whose resources are scarce . There is no clear understanding among potential sponsors both in Armenia and the Diaspora that rugby is now the only sport game, in which , the Armenian national team is able to achieve noticeable success in the international arena. This is evidently the reason why the Rugby Federation of Armenia is in the position of a stepson, when trying to open a rugby school for children, requesting discounts in renting fields for matches and training, etc.
Regrettably, the power structures of Armenia (the army, police, security service, etc.) do not attach importance to developing rugby. Meanwhile it is well-known that rugby involves rigid physical struggle, so players are required to be in good physical and functional shape, display endurance, agility, vigor, a sense of collectivism, fighting skills and certain moral qualities. This makes rugby popular among members of the power structures and armed forces in many countries.
Yet G. Panikian and P. Aslanian do not get frustrated and hope that the implementation of the "Armenian Rugby" project will be successful. They are carrying on with their work and hope to attract permanent and solid sponsors in order to revive rugby in Armenia and hold regular competitions, including one in memory of Vitya Aivazian, a National Hero of Armenia, who was also a rugby player.
"The Noyan Tapan Highlights" N30-31, August, 2005