David Keyton, from the Associated Press, reports about the soccer team of the Republic of Artsakh, which practices five days a week on an artificial field, the Stepanakert Republican Stadium, near the center of the capital, but has no one to play against.
Defender Aram Kostandyan said that “UEFA doesn’t let us participate anywhere,” while wishing that he could inspire the younger generation of players and show them “why they are playing football.”
There is an Azerbaijani team called Qarabag, previously based in the town of Agdam, totally destroyed during the 1988-1994 and now within the borders of Artsakh, which made it to the Champions League this year. Today, they are based in Baku, supported financially by the Azerbaijani government and with a fan base of refugees and their descendants.
“They represent one country, we represent another,” said Artsakh coach Slavik Gabrielyan. “We see them using this name as a political statement.”
Playing soccer in Artsakh, writes Keyton, is very different from playing in the Champions League.
All the players are professionals, but with a salary of about $120 per month, most cannot survive solely on soccer. Such is the case of midfielder Arsen Sargsyan, who played in the league of Armenia for more than seven years, but has now returned to Stepanakert. Besides playing, Sargsyan also has a small business, helps out on the farms, and generally does “every job I can get my hands on.”
The few tournaments that the Artsakh team can partake in involve other unrecognized states, or the Pan-Armenian Games every four years. They won in the last edition of the games in 2015 by beating a team of Russians living in Armenia.
“The Karabakh spirit is very high,” Sargsyan said with a smile as he spoke about a future where the Artsakh team can “play under our country’s flag.”
“We have hope. We believe,” said Gabrielyan, who has spent 18 years as a player and 30 as a coach. “This grassy field is my second home. Look how beautiful it is with its two goals on each side.”