Yerevan is capital of Armenia, a city of one million in a country of three million shaped by migration, earthquake and conflict. The football club most associated with Yerevan is Ararat, named after the symbolic snow-capped mountain that beckons to Armenians from across the Turkish border.
Placed in the middle of the country’s coat of arms, first when a Soviet republic then as an independent nation, Ararat rises about 30km from the southern outskirts of Yerevan, a city littered with defunct soccer clubs and neglected stadiums.
While Ararat’s heritage is Soviet, many clubs emerging after Armenian independence in 1991 have been set up by entrepreneurs ploughing new-found wealth into football. In most cases, this is not a rational business decision – Armenian clubs charge no admission for domestic fixtures, played out to crowds in the low hundreds at best. Their motivation is emotional, naming clubs, such as 2018 champions Alashkert, after former Armenian communities in what is now Turkey.
The league that Alashkert won consisted of six clubs, four from Yerevan. Bottom-placed Ararat stayed up thanks to the top division expanding to ten clubs in 2018-19.
Ararat Yerevan were at their height during the Armenian football boom of the early 1970s, doing the Soviet double in 1973 thanks to goals from Arkady Andreasyan. In the subsequent European Cup quarter-final, they took trophy holders Bayern Munich to the wire, the Baku-born Andreasyan putting the home side ahead in Yerevan, before the German visitors just about held on to their one-goal aggregate advantage.
Only grainy black-and-white footage remains of Andreasyan leaping to head past Sepp Maier in front of 70,000 Armenians at a packed Hrazdan Stadium – but it captures an era of mass support and success. A huge open bowl built in Soviet style – Leonard Brezhnev came to its unveiling in 1970 – the stadium was mainly funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, set up by the Armenian millionaire of the same name. Gulbenkian was born across the Bosphorus from Istanbul, where the first Armenian football teams were founded in the early 1900s. Gulbenkian poured a fortune into Armenian churches, libraries and other projects.
Most of his compatriots fled Turkey during World War I, before Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Soon, football matches were played with teams from other nations of Transcaucasian USSR, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia became its own Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936.
This was also when the first all-Soviet league system was set up. A branch of the Moscow-based Spartak Sports Society, Spartak Yerevan played in the equally new Armenian League, sharing early domination with city rivals Dinamo Yerevan. Also linked to better-known brethren in the Soviet capital, Dinamo built their own stadium in 1935. Completely overhauled in 2000, this is now the Republican Stadium, where most international fixtures, at club and country level, are staged.
While Spartak and Dinamo then rose to national level to compete with teams from Moscow, Leningrad and great rivals Kiev, the Armenian League was invariably won by works teams from Yerevan, Elektrotechnik, Motor, SKIF, and so on.
Spartak became Ararat in 1963, and took up permanent residence in the Soviet top flight. Armenia also gained more influence in Moscow, with later administrator Nikita Simonyan as the figurehead. Captain of the USSR side at the 1958 World Cup, Simonyan scored a record number of goals for Spartak Moscow and managed the club for a decade before coming to his Armenian homeland to mastermind Ararat’s Soviet League win of 1973.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, war erupted between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan. With the conflict yet to be fully resolved, Armenian and Azeri sides are kept apart in all international tournaments. An attempt to play an under-19 fixture between them in Cyprus in 2006 ended in a riot.
While war crippled the economy and Armenia was flooded with refugees, Azerbaijan benefitted from energy riches to gain considerable global influence. Baku’s gleaming Olympic Stadium staged Qarabag’s Champions League campaign against Chelsea, Roma and Atlético Madrid in 2018, and will host both the 2019 Europa League Final and four games for Euro 2020.
Armenia’s domestic game, meanwhile, has buckled to the point of collapse. Ararat struggled to adjust to the market economy and haven’t won a European tie for 20 years. Hero of the 1970s, Arkady Andreasyan, has been hired as coach six times. The club that assumed their mantle, Pyunik (‘Phoenix’), was run until recently by MP and Armenian FA president Ruben Hayrapetyan.
Coming through Pyunik’s youth ranks was Henrikh Mkhitaryan, son of former Ararat star Hamlet. After leading favoured Pyunik to four straight titles, he headed to Donetsk and Dortmund to become Armenia’s only star of international status. Since Mkhitaryan, Pyunik have done a reverse phoenix, trailing in a weak league and granting Gibraltar’s Europa FC their only major European victory to date.
First based at the now moribund Hrazdan Stadium of 1970s’ lore, the club currently split home games between their own Pyunik Stadium and the Republican. Similarly Alashkert, who only moved to Yerevan in 2011, use both their own ground and the de facto national stadium. Set just south-east of the ring road that holds Yerevan’s city centre, Kentron, the Republican Stadium is also named after Vazgen Sargsyan, a commander in the war with Azerbaijan and assassinated in the National Assembly when serving as prime minister in 1999.
The Hrazdan and Pyunik’s ground are south-west of Kentron, the Alashkert Stadium further south near the city’s main train station.
UK, EU and US citizens do not need a visa to enter Armenia. The Armenian currency is the dram (AMD) – there are currently AMD570 to €1, AMD640 to £1. A beer is about AMD600/£0.93, a modest restaurant meal AMD3,000/£4.67.
Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, 14km (eight miles) west of the city, serves direct flights from Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow and many ex-Soviet cities.
Public transport to the city is sketchy. Communal minibus No.18 sets off every 20min from the bus park near the terminal (turn right out of Arrivals then upstairs). Pay the driver AMD300/£0.47 plus AMD100/£0.15 for luggage, having remembered to carry small change with you. The bus calls at Sasuntsi Davit metro station by Yerevan train station before terminating near Yeritasardakan metro in the city centre. In between, it also stops at Rossiya Mall, about 10min walk from the Republican Stadium south-east of town.
An official airport taxi costs AMD6,000/£9.33 into town but you can probably find one for half this (agree a fee beforehand) and most hotels offer shuttle services.
Yerevan public transport consists of public minibuses and random buses, fares AMD100/£0.15. The city centre is walkable. A Soviet-built one-line metro runs north-south, calling at focal Republic Square and Zoravar Andranik near the Republican Stadium. Tokens are AMD100/£0.15.
Taxis are everywhere – a hop across the city centre should cost around AMD800/£1.25 but make sure the meter is switched on and carry change with you.
There is no official website of practical use for tourists in Yerevan.
There are absolutely scores of hotels in town, from humble to high-end – and several within walking distance of Republican Stadium.
The tastefully furnished Europe Hotel is one of them, on Hanrapetutyan Street close to Vernisagge market, with rooms at around AMD50,000/£80.
Nearer the centre, the modern Republica contains boutique rooms in a similar price range close to Republic Square. On other side of Amiryan Street, the notch-above National offers a heated pool, sauna and spa, plus luxury features such as a cigar bar.
At the lower end of the budget, Nor Yerevan at 42 Aram Street is a well located cheapo on a quiet back street. Even cheaper, the Envoy is not only a 24-hour hostel but a tour operator, with themed Communist sightseeing and transfers/monastery hops to/from Tbilisi in Georgia.
Foreigner-friendly pubs and bars cluster around France Square at the northern end of the city centre. Among them, the Paulaner Beerhouse at 6 Tamanyan Street is arguably the best place to watch football, with four screens and scarves on display. Open from 10am until midnight, it offers German beer and pub food. It also has a sister venue closer to the centre at 19 Teryan Street.
Back in the bar hub, the Beer Academy at the corner of Isahakyan and Moskovyan provides a good range of ales and food, plus TV football for big games. You can also see match action at 26 Irish Pub on Ghazar Parpetsi Street, a smoky cellar with table football as well.
At 60 Pushkin Street, The Beatles Pub is one of dozens across the former Soviet Union, this one screening the World Cup and other big games. Further along at No.31, Tom Collins screens football but also mixes cocktails and stages live bands.
At 72 Aram Street, Dargett promises little from its bland surroundings but is Yerevan’s first craft brewery, with burgers and Tex-Mex food served too.