Football and the Bible are not the most obvious of bedfellows, assuming of course you consider the mention of Queen Of The South in the gospels of Luke and Mark as more pub quiz staple than theological curiosity.
You are certainly unlikely to ever be quizzed about the club with perhaps the most tangible connection to ancient religious texts than any other: Armenia’s Ararat Yerevan. This is the club named after Mount Ararat, which overlooks the republic’s capital city and is identified in the Bible as the location of the Garden of Eden no less. Biblical scholars also claim that Mount Ararat was the place where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the floods subsided. The story goes that the animals came along to board the Ark two by two, and for Ararat Yerevan the trophies also came along in pairs, during one particularly historic season in the 1970’s.
Soviet football had always been a very Moscow-centric affair until the death of Stalin in 1955 brought some loosening of state control, allowing clubs from further afield to compete more equally. Dynamo Kiev led this breakout from the Ukraine, their double success in 1966 was the first by a non-Muscovite side and Georgian giants Dinamo Tblisi’s famous ‘Golden Guys’ team won their first title in the same era. These were republics within the Soviet Union with strong football traditions and their successes were seen as a natural outcome of a more even competitive environment.
By contrast remote Armenia was a republic of little footballing significance and few expected the Soviet Union’s next major club force to emerge from there. Ararat Yerevan was the only Armenian club with any profile and even they had spent as much time out of the Soviet Top League as in it. They had only even been called Ararat since 1963, before then it was considered too nationalistic a name for a club forced to limp by for decades as Spartak or Dynamo Yerevan. The change of name corresponded with an upturn in fortunes and with their promotion in 1966 they were to finally shed their traditional image of occasional top-flight interlopers.
Ararat thrived in the top division thanks to the solid foundations established by respected manager Aleksandr Ponomarev. Continuity helped too, when Ponomarev left to manage the national side his assistant Nikolay Glebov took over and continued the ongoing reorganisation and modernisation of the club from top to bottom.
Their style of play was to modernise as well. The prevailing orthodoxy within the Soviet Union at the time was a quick passing, team orientated game, which was quite at odds with the natural style and temperament of Armenian players. Improvisation and dribbling skills were considerably more prized than a systematic, drilled approach, it meant Armenian teams were often easy on the eye but had scant regard for the more mundane aspects of the game. This was the challenge as Glebov saw it, how to encourage expression of his team’s natural ability but within a more structured tactical framework.
It helped having a fairly cosmopolitan mix of players in his squad. Russians and Azerbaijanis complemented the core of locally produced players and as a group they adapted well to Glebov’s new methods and 4-3-3 formation. Ararat moved from perennial relegation strugglers to the fringes of the title race and by 1971 they had improved enough to finish in second place, albeit some way behind Dynamo Kiev.
Despite another high placed finish in 1972 Glebov moved aside. Rumours suggested ill health, although the change was more likely driven by the sudden availability of Nikita Simonyan as a replacement. Simonyan was a much-decorated Soviet legend of Armenian descent who had won multiple honours as both player and manager during a lengthy association with Spartak Moscow. Bringing home a long absent and high profile national hero seemed an emotional move by the club, Simonyan himself was no sentimental patriot though. Cold logic drove his decision, Ararat had beaten his old Spartak team enough times for him to recognise the considerable potential there.
And what potential. Although now much better organised defensively thanks to Glebov’s efforts, Ararat’s main strength was undoubtedly in midfield that boasted a smattering of current and ex-internationals and a considerable goal threat from all quarters.
Arkady Andreasyan was a clever playmaker and a fine passer who directed the tempo of the team, he could contribute a dozen goals a season too. Sergei Bondarenko was famous for his ferocious long range shooting, locals joked that he could score from the fish shop down the road from the Hrazdan Stadium. Oganes Zanazanyan and Sergei Poghosyan provided them with diligent and intelligent support.
Up front they had a fine blend of complementary talents too. Eduard Markarov was their veteran Baku-born veteran at centre forward; he had led the line for the USSR at the 1966 World Cup and remained a prolific scorer. He played alongside Nikolay Ghazayan and the winger Levon Ishtoyan who provided clever footwork and attacking thrust from wide positions. Ishtoyan, Andreasyan and the brilliant young midfield prodigy Khoren Oganesian had won bronze medals playing for the Soviet Union at the recent Munich Olympics. Oganesian was just emerging at club level for Ararat but would go on years later to be voted Armenia’s greatest ever player.
The 1973 campaign was unusual in one particular respect: to counter the growing number of drawn matches the Soviet Federation introduced a rule for this season only with drawn games to be settled by penalty shoot out. Rather than earning a point apiece as before, now there was a solitary point available for the shoot-out winners. Ararat did not prosper especially from this rule, over the season they won four points from eight drawn games and it was a shoot out defeat following a scoreless draw in Tblisi that cost them leadership of the table to CSKA Moscow after 10 rounds. They had made a strong and confident start to the 1973 campaign however; this was the first time they had been dislodged from top spot in the first third of the season.
CSKA fell away, indeed the big Moscow sides had faded collectively as a force from decades past but matches against the institution clubs Dynamo, Spartak, CSKA and Torpedo remained a daunting prospect for provincial sides like Ararat. A good record against them was vital for any club with title aspirations; they represented a quarter of the League after all. Ararat ably demonstrated their confidence and growing maturity in these games, they remained unbeaten against the Muscovite four all season and it was to be the capital clubs who wilted in front of intimidating 60,000 crowds at the Hrazdan.
Most title chasers have a concerted dip in form at some stage and for Ararat it came two thirds of the way through the season, a run of three successive away matches yielding no points. Well-beaten 3-0 by lowly Karpaty Lviv, Ararat then travelled to bottom of the table SKA Rostov and soon trailed 2-0 after some shocking defensive errors. Andreasyan scored twice to bring Ararat level, but missed his penalty in the shoot-out leaving Ararat with nothing. The third match of this unfortunate triumvirate of games was at fast improving Dynamo Kiev, now just a point adrift in the table. At one end Ararat could not get past Kiev’s excellent keeper Rudakov, at the other they could not contain Oleg Blokhin and the Kiev legend inspired his side to a 3-1 victory and leadership of the table.
Lesser teams might have crumbled having thrown away a decent advantage at a crucial stage of the season, but Ararat bounced back impressively. Three successive victories against Kairat, Zarya and the manager’s former club Spartak Moscow saw them move level again with Kiev. The Armenians now appeared to have the advantage with all of their remaining three games of the season scheduled at home, despite them being compressed into a hectic seven day schedule.
Firstly Dinamo Minsk and then CSKA Moscow were narrowly beaten at the Hrazdan. Dynamo Kiev slipped up and dropped a point, meaning a win for Ararat against Zenit in the final round would guarantee them the championship. It was a suitable climax, an exciting roller coaster of a match ending 3-2 to Ararat, a sixth straight win and a title won comfortably in the end with Kiev losing their final game anyway.
The win provoked a huge, almost disbelieving outpouring of nationalistic joy within the city and across Armenia as a whole, but for the players there was still work to be done. One last match remained of their season as they had also reached the Final of the Soviet Cup. It was another competition Ararat had never won and blocking their path to the double was Dynamo Kiev once more.
The Final was played in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and 15,000 Ararat supporters made the 3500km round trip to support their team, an unprecedented following in a League without any great tradition of away support. Despite their incessant vocal support the trip was looking a wasted one, Kiev led through a Kolotov penalty for most of a low-key game with few chances for either side. Simonyan went for broke, in the dying minutes he threw on Poghosyan and Ghazayan as subs and the changes paid off as Ghazayan set up international winger Levon Ischtovan for an 89th minute equaliser. The goal galvanised Ararat and they dominated extra time, driven on by the now frenzied supporter chants of the nationalist war cry ‘Hayer, Hayer, Hayer’ (meaning Armenians). Ischtovan scored a famous winner after 113 minute.
Huge celebrations broke out once more back in Yerevan as tens of thousands of people thronged the city to celebrate, sing banned nationalist folk songs and paint a number 8 on the back of the city’s Lenin statue in honour of the scorer Ischtovan. So was born the legend of what became known as Armenia’s Dream Team, their double was a fitting reward for the never say die spirit of the team and the gradual and sensible development of the club over the past half decade.
This unlikely double unsurprisingly proved to be the high point in Ararat’s history, as they proved unable to sustain the form of 1973. Domestically Dynamo Kiev with Lobanovski on the bench and Bokhin on the pitch became the dominant force. Ararat at least remained competitive, they followed up with a couple of fifth placed finishes, a second Soviet Cup in 1975, runners up spot in the 1976 Soviet Spring League and a Cup Final defeat in 1976. Even when they ceased to be any trophy threat they remained comfortable mainstays of the Soviet Top League until its demise in 1991.
Their European Cup adventure was ended in the spring of 1975 by holders Bayern Munich in the Quarter Finals, a goal by Andreasyan inflicted Bayern’s sole defeat during their successful defence of the trophy, but wasn’t enough to overturn the two second half goals sub Uli Hoeness had scored in the first leg in Munich.
The break up of the Soviet Supreme League has proven to be harsher to Ararat than most of the former regional powerhouses they use to jostle for position with. While others have prospered to varying degrees within their own national Leagues, Ararat Yerevan have by contrast become fairly incidental to Armenian football and were even relegated from the republic’s Premier League in 2009.
Communism and capitalism has each thrown up different and demanding challenges for the club. In Communist times their geographic and political remoteness meant they were at a disadvantage to clubs who benefitted greatly from the influential patronage of the party elite. Capitalism in turn has seen them marginalised by a surge of brash new money arriving at local rivals Pyunik, a club which now totally dominates Armenian football thanks to its wealthy American-Armenian owner Ruben Hayrapetyan, yet didn’t even exist two decades ago.
Ararat Yerevan remains a well-supported and historic club with a storied history from Soviet days, but their best days are decades rather than years behind them. Supporters console themselves with self deprecating humour, some joke that there is more chance of God sending another deluge of rain to wipe out every sinner on earth than Ararat regaining the prestige of their 70s heyday. Let’s hope the club keeps its trophy cabinet well above sea level to be on the safe side.
By Craig McCracken
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona