Given the history between the two nations, the olive branch offered by Armenia to Turkey before their recent Euro 2016 qualifiers was an extraordinary gesture.

What was at first seen as a diplomatic nightmare was, instead, seized upon as a diplomatic opportunity. In 2008, Turkey were drawn in a qualification group for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa that included Spain, Bosnia, Belgium and neighbouring Armenia.

The game with Armenia presented several problems. Firstly, Ankara and Yerevan had not established diplomatic relations since Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the border between the two nations had been firmly shut for more than 15 years.

The two countries were not on speaking terms thanks to one of the darkest moments of the 20th century: the thorny issue of whether the deaths of as many as 1.5million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, from 1915 onwards, should be classed as a genocide. Turkey vehemently denies a planned destruction of a people; almost all genocide scholars and most Western nations – including Germany and Canada – believe it was.

The game in Armenia looked at first as if it could be explosive, with Armenian nationalists planning to picket the game. Then something extraordinary happened.

“I hereby invite President Gul [of Turkey] to visit Armenia to enjoy the match together with me in the stadium,” Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece a few months before the game. “Thus we will announce a new symbolic start in our relations.

“Whatever our differences, there are certain cultural, humanitarian and sports links that our peoples share, even with a closed border.”

Gul accepted and made the first visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state in modern times, while 5,000 Turkish supporters were given rare permission to travel to Yerevan. The build-up to the match was tense, almost relegating the football to second place.

“This is only a football game, it is not a war,” said Turkey coach Fetih Terim.

“We cannot carry the weight of history on our shoulders.”

 Building bridges…Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan (left) and Turkish president  Abdullah Gul

Building bridges…Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan (left) and Turkish president
Abdullah Gul

Protesters lined the route of Gul’s motorcade to the stadium, but the match passed peacefully, with Turkey winning 2-0. Shortly before the return match in Bursa – also won 2-0 by Turkey – foreign ministers from the two countries signed an agreement, laying out a road map towards full diplomatic relations.

As popular as the club game is in world football, only international football possesses that level of influence, power and potency. While club football’s local identities are being diluted by globalisation, international football has maintained its core raison d’etre as one of the last unshakable symbols of identity and nationhood that a country or people can clearly recognise.

It is perhaps because of this that football is at its most political when it comes to the international game. Rivalries tend to be rooted not just on pure geographical proximity, as most of the great derbies in the club game are, but in war and conflict. Armenia and Turkey would not have faced each other in any other arena other than a sporting one.

George Orwell famously wrote that football was “war minus the shooting”.

The phrase came from his 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit, about a Russian team playing a series of bad-tempered exhibition matches in the UK. It is full of observations on how sport in general, and football in particular, is an extension of the political realm, which feeds what he viewed as an evil nationalism.

“If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment,” he wrote, “you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs [sic], each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.” Seventy years on, those matches are the most sought-after in the world game. The biggest events watched on TV are football matches between national teams. The most watched single world event is the World Cup. Half-empty stadiums fill to the brim when North play South Korea, Holland play Germany, Honduras play El Salvador (the first football match to spark a war, as it did in 1969), Serbia play Croatia and Scotland play England. Each rivalry is rooted in a list of historic grievances and bloodshed.

Rivalry as proxy for war has long been a staple of the international calender. When Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, each new nation quickly established its own national team. They were soon playing heated qualifying matches against each other – which were both violent and cathartic – but the hatred diminished with each passing match. When Serbia went to Zagreb to play Croatia in a World Cup qualifier, visiting fans were banned and that could be an indication of the future.

Some games are now considered so politically explosive that FIFA and UEFA have intervened to make sure the countries can never play each other. Azerbaijan and Armenia are kept separate during World Cup and European Championship draws, for example. Both countries remain at war since the late 1980s over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a pro-Armenian, unrecognised republic that Azerbaijan says is still their territory – and the issue over which Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993.

When Gibraltar was admitted into UEFA after a long legal battle, one proviso was that they would never be drawn in the same group as Spain, who still have claims over the peninsular. Most recently, UEFA and FIFA moved to ensure Russia and Ukraine – who are currently fighting a pro-Russian insurgency in the east of the country – can’t play each other either.

After the Euro 2016 qualification match last year between Serbia and Albania, teams with a fractious history are likely to be kept further apart in future. Perhaps UEFA and FIFA have taken a leaf out of Orwell’s book.

“There are quite enough real causes of trouble already,” he wrote. “We need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.”

By James Montague

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of World Soccer, as part of our celebration of the 50 greatest rivalries of world football.


  • Zam Zam

    Of course there would be a denialist of the genocide here spewing their politicized garbage. The point of the article is how these two groups can come together over a game of futbol and work things out. But you want to instead move forward with denialist statements. If you want to give me historians that are portraying the scenario of 1915 as mutual massacre, I’ll give you TURKISH historians and scholars, 200 of them, who signed a petition stating the Ottoman government massacred the Armenians. Enjoy and read:

    Jan. 6, 2016

    A Turkish ‘I apologize’ campaign to Armenians

    By Esra Özyürek

    January 5, 2009, 12:00 a.m.

    Two hundred Turkish intellectuals last month launched an Internet signature campaign for an apology to Armenians for the 1915 massacres. “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915,” the brief statement reads. “I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”

    Within a month, more than 26,000 people signed on, a significant number in a country where the fate of the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire has been largely unmentionable for decades. To those long frustrated by Turkey’s intractability on the issue, this campaign may appear an inadequate gesture. But it has immense value, educating many Turks about the violence done to Armenians for the first time and enabling those who are ready to come to terms with it.

    The official Turkish position on 1915 has shifted over time. It was a fight between local Turkish and Armenian bands. Or it was a forced resettlement — a march on which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were sent to Syria, but most never arrived. Historians and politicians also have argued that it was actually Armenians who massacred Turks and that talk of an Armenian genocide was an international conspiracy. In contemporary Turkey, novelists, journalists, historians or other intellectuals who call the events a genocide or even mass murder can face trial under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which outlaws insulting Turkey, its government or its people.

    Organizers of the “I apologize” campaign notably shied away from the word genocide, opting instead for “the Great Catastrophe,” a phrase initially used by Armenians. Still, Turkish nationalists were quick to condemn the project and launch multiple, counter we-want-an-apology campaigns.

    Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, quickly dismissed the apology movement. “These Turkish intellectuals must have committed the genocide,” he said mockingly, “since they are the ones who are apologizing.” Opposition parties in the parliament, other than the Kurdish-inclined Democratic Turkey Party, have all condemned the campaign as well. The Nationalist Action Party, for example, issued a statement that said, in part, “There is no single page in the honorable history of the Turkish nation for which we should be embarrassed, and no crime for which we should apologize. No one has the right to smear our ancestors by deviating from history, declaring them guilty, and ask them to apologize.”

    Granted, 26,000 signatories to the campaign means Turks interested in apologizing remain few and far between in a nation of 70 million. Still, this is a very significant development in Turkey. In the last 10 years, several Turkish scholars began studying the Armenian massacres outside the official Turkish framework, and some of them, such as Taner Akcam, have openly acknowledged those events were a genocide. Turkish and Armenian scholars organized joint workshops to discuss what happened to Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire. When Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist of Armenian background, was assassinated by a nationalist thug in Istanbul two years ago, 200,000 Turks marched in the streets carrying banners that said, “We are all Armenian.”

    Critics will certainly reply that these modest activities do not compensate for the original crime nor the suffering caused by its denial for almost a century. They will complain that the current signature campaign does not use the word genocide. Yet the significance of this campaign cannot be understated.

    I grew up in Turkey in a politically engaged, educated and reasonably liberal family in the 1970s and the 1980s, and I had only a vague idea about the animosity between Turks and Armenians. It wasn’t until I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan, one of the most important centers of Ottoman and Armenian studies in the United States, that I learned about the unacceptably sad end of the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

    Turks growing up today surely are better informed about the history of the land they inhabit. Even those who accept the nationalist line have to be aware of the sudden end of the centuries-long Armenian presence in Anatolia. Regardless of the terms they employ or the specific amount of responsibility they willingly shoulder, this next generation of Turks is already in a much better position to face the darkest aspect of their national history and develop a more responsible relationship to it.

    It may appear a small gesture now, but the initiators of the “I apologize” campaign have introduced a ray of hope for reconciliation between Armenians and Turks before the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe comes around.

    Esra Özyürek is an associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego and the author of “Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey” and “Politics of Public Memory in Turkey.”

  • HiEm818

    zubeyde, You mean the “Lewis Affair” … The “historians” were found to be paid by the turkish government

    “Some of the other signatories confessed later that there are deliberate attempts by the Turkish government and its allies to muddle and deny the issue”

    LOL turkish denial is a joke

    On May 19, 1985, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran an advertisement in which a group of 69 American historians called on Congress not to adopt the resolution on the Armenian Genocide.Bernard Lewis, a prominent historian of Islam at Princeton, was among them and so the case was named after him. The advertisement was paid for by the Committee of the Turkish Associations. Another important signee was Heath Lowry, the director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown.Both Lewis and Lowry have been included among the key deniers of the Armenian Genocide. According to Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen and Robert Jay Lifton, Lowry was also advising on how to prevent mention of the Armenian Genocide in scholarly works, and was discovered ghost writing for the Turkish ambassador in Washington on issues regarding the Embassy’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian Assembly of America found that many or most of the 69 academics apparently benefited directly or indirectly from Turkish government research grants.[93][94] According to Yair Auron, an Israeli historian, scholar and expert specializing in Genocide studies and racism, this advertisement is a good example of one of many Turkish attempts to influence academia, a project on which Turkey spends enormous funds

    After publication of the statement, professor Gérard Chaliand of Paris V – Sorbonne University expressed disappointment that Lewis had signed. Lewis responded that the statement was an attempt to avoid damaging Turkish-American relationships and that it included a call for Turkey to open its archives, but the former was not mentioned in the statement. Some of the other signatories confessed later that there are deliberate attempts by the Turkish government and its allies to muddle and deny the issue. Others confirm that there have been massacres but say they avoid the use of the term Genocide.[96] However, Henry Morgenthau Sr. wrote that “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

    In October 2000, when the House of Representatives of the US was to discuss the resolution on the Armenian Genocide, Turkish politician Şükrü Elekdağ admitted that the statement had become useless because none of the original signatories besides Justin McCarthy would agree to sign a new, similar declaration””

  • USA

    The Ottoman empire was a part of Turkeys history. So you can not excuse one part of your history. Secondly the Genocide happened in the hands of the young Turks the creators of modern day Turkey. It one lie after another with you turks. First the Turks denied it ever happened. Than the Turks state it happened but it was not Genocide. Than the Turkish leader Eragon sorry if I mis spelled his name, tried to apologize for the crime. The fact is it happened and it was done by the turks. So the new Turkish strategy is buy out the historians. Good luck.

  • zubeyde

    From the declaration printed in The New York
    Times on May 19, 1985 signed by 69 American academicians who specialized in Turkish, Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies.

    ‘The undersigned American academicians who
    specialize in Turkish, Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies are concerned that
    the current language embodied in House Joint Resolution 192 is misleading
    and/or inaccurate in several respects………….we respectfully take exception to
    that portion of the text which singles out for special recognition: ‘……the one
    and one half million people of Armenian ancestry who were victims of genocide
    perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923….’

    ‘Our reservations focus on the use of the words ‘Turkey’ and ‘genocide’ and may be summarized as follows:

    *From the fourteenth century until 1922, the
    area currently known as Turkey, or more correctly, the Republic of Turkey, was
    part of the territory encompassing the multi-national, multi-religious state
    known as the Ottoman Empire. It is wrong to equate the Ottoman Empire with the
    Republic of Turkey in the same way that is wrong to equate the Hapsburg Empire
    with the Republic of Austria. The Ottoman Empire, which was brought to an end
    in 1922, by the successful conclusion of the Turkish Revolution which
    established the present day Republic of Turkey in 1923, incorporated lands and
    peoples which today account for more than twenty-five distinct countries in
    Southeastern Europe, North Africa, and Middle East, only one of which is the
    Republic of Turkey. The Republic of Turkey bears no responsibility for any
    events which occurred in Ottoman times, yet by naming ‘Turkey’ in the
    Resolution, its authors have implicitly labeled it as guilty of the ‘genocide’
    it charges transpired between 1915 and 1923.

    *As for
    the charge of ‘genocide’: No signatory of this statement wishes to
    minimize the scope of Armenian suffering. We are likewise cognizant that it
    cannot be viewed as separate from the suffering experienced by the Muslim
    inhabitants of the region. The weight of evidence so far uncovered points in
    the direction of serious inter-communal warfare (perpetrated by Muslim and
    Christian irregular forces), complicated by disease, famine, suffering and
    massacres in Anatolia and adjoining areas during the First World War. Indeed,
    throughout the years in question, the region was the scene of more or less
    continuous warfare, not unlike the tragedy which has gone on in Lebenon for the
    past decade. The resulting death toll among both Muslim and Christian
    communities of the region was immense. But much more remains to be discovered
    before historians will be able to sort out precisely responsibility between
    warring and innocent, and to identify the causes for the events which resulted
    in the death or removal of large numbers of the eastern Anatolian population,
    Christian and Muslim alike

    Statesmen and politicians make history and
    scholars write it. For this process to work scholars must be given access to
    the written records of the atatesmen and politicians of the past. To date, the
    relevant archives in the Soviet Union, Syria, Bulgaria and Turkey all remain, for
    the most part, closed to dispassionate historians. Until they become available
    the history of the Ottoman Empire in the period encompassed by H.J.Res.192
    (1915-1923) cannot be adequately known.

    We believe that the proper position for the United States Congress to take on this and related issues, is to encourage full and open Access to all historical archives, and not to make charges on historical events before they are fully understood. Such charges as those contained in H.J.Res.192 would inevitably reflect unjustly upon the people of Turkey, and perhaps set back irreparably progress historians are just now beginning to archieve in understanding these tragic events.

    As the above comments illustrate, the history of the Ottoman-Armenians is much debated among scholars, many of whom do not agree with the historical assumptions embodied in the wording of H.J.Res.192. ….Such a resolution, based on historically questionable assumptions, can only damage the cause of honest historical enquiry, and damage the credibility of the American legistlative process.’

    Rifaat Abou-EJ-Haj, Professor of History, California State University at Long Beach
    Sarah Moment Atis, Associate Professor of Turkish Language and Literature, University of Wisconsin at Madison
    Karl Barbir, Associate Professor of History, Siena College New York
    Ilhan Basgoz, Director of Turkish Studies Program at the Department of Uralic and
    Altaic Studies, Indiana University
    Daniel G.Bates, Professor of Abtropology, Hunter College, City University of New York
    Ulku Bates, Professor of Art History, Hunter College, City College of New York
    Gustav Bayerie, Professor of Uralic and Altaic Studies, Indiana University
    Andras G.E. Bodrogligetti, Professor of Turkic and Iranian Languages, University of
    California at Los Angeles
    Kathleen Burrill, Associate Professor of Turkish Studies, Columbia University
    Timothy Childs, Professorial Lecturer SAIS, Johns Hopkins Universtiy
    Shafiga Daulet, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Connecticut
    Roderic Davison, Professor of History, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
    Walter Denny, Professor of Art History and Near Eastern Studies..University of Massachusetts
    Dr Alan Duben, Antropologist, Researcher, New York City
    Ellen Ervin, Research Assistant Professor of Turkish, New York University
    Caesar Farah, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History, University of Minnesota
    Carter Findley, Associate Professor of History, The Ohio State University
    Michael Finefrock, Professor of History, College of Charleston
    Alan Fisher, Professor of History, Michigan State University
    Cornell Fleischer, Assistant Professor of History, Washington University (Missouri)
    Peter Golden, Professor of History, Rutgers University, Newark
    Tom Goodrich, Professor of History, Indiana University of Pennyslyvania,
    Andrew Gould, PhD. İn Otoman History, Flagstaff, Arizona
    William Griswold, Professor of History, Colorado State University,
    Tibor Halasi-Kun, Professor Emeritus of Turkish Studies, Columbia University
    William Hickman, Associate Professor of Turkish, University of California, Berkeley
    J.C.Hurewitz,Professor of Government Emeritus Former Director of the Middle East Institute (1971-1984), Columbia University
    John Hymes, Professor of History, Glenville State College, West Virginia
    Halil İnalcik, University Professor of Otoman History and Member of the
    AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences, University of Chicago
    Ralph Jaeckel, Visiting Assistant Professor of Turkish, University of California at
    Los Angeles
    Ronald Jennings, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of
    James Kelly, Associate Professor of Turkish, University of Utah
    Kerim Key, Adjunct Professor, Southeastern University, Washington,D.C.
    Metin Kunt, Professor of Otoman History, New York City
    Frederick Latimer, associate Professor of History, Retired, University of Utah
    Avigdor Lewy, Professor of History, Brandeis University
    Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern History, Princeton
    Dr Heath W.Lowry, Institute of Turkish Studies, Inc. Washington, D.C.
    Justin McCarthy, Associate Professor of History, University of Louisville
    Joc Mandaville, Professor of the History of the Middle East, Portland State
    University (Oregon)
    Michael Mecker, Professor of Anthropology, University of California at San Diego
    Rhoads Murphey, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures and History, Columbia University
    Thomas Naff, Professor of History and Director, Middle East Research Institute,
    University of Pennsylvania
    Pierre Oberling, Professor of History, Hunter College of the City University of New
    William Ochsenwald, Associate Professor of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
    Robert Olson, Associate Professor of History, University of Kentucky
    William Peachy, Assistant Professor of the Judaic and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, The Ohio State University
    Donald Quataert, Associate Professor of History, University of Houston
    Howard Reed, Professor of History, University of Connecticut
    Dankwart Rustow, Distinguished University Professor of Political Science, City
    University Graduate School, New York
    Ezel Kural Shaw, Associate Professor of History, California State University,
    Stanford Shaw, Professor of History, University of California at Los Angeles
    Elaine Smith, Ph.D. in Turkish History. Retired Foreign Service Officer, Washington,
    Grace M. Smith, Visiting Lecturer in Turkish University of California at Berkeley
    John Mason Smith, Jr. Professor of History, University of California at Berkeley
    Dr. Svat Soucek, Turcologist, New York City
    Robert Staab, Assistant Director of the Middle East Center, University of Utah
    June Starr, Associate Professor of Anthropology SUNY Stoneybrook
    James Stewart-Robinson, Professor of Turkish Studies, University of Michigan
    Dr. Philip Steddard, Executive Director, Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.
    Frank Tachau, Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois at Chicago
    Metin Tamkoc, Professor of International Law and Relations, Texas Tech University
    David Thomas, Associate Professor of History, Rhode Island College
    Margaret L. Venzke, Assistant Professor of History, Dickinson College (Pennsylvania)
    Warren S. Walker, Horn Professor of English and Director of the
    Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative, Texas Tech University
    Donald Webster, Professor of Turkish History, Retired
    Walter Welker, Professor of Political Science, Rytgers University
    John Woods, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History, University of Chicago
    Madeline Zilfi, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland