BEIRUT (FIFA.com) — A language spoken by millions around the world, football brings people together as one, a fact reflected by the clubs and organisations who last year took it upon themselves to offer their support to refugees. Their selfless initiatives earned them the FIFA Fair Play Award for 2015, which was accepted on their behalf at January’s FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala by Gerald Asamoah, the Ghanaian-born former Germany international.
Highlighting football’s ability to strengthen bonds, Asamoah told FIFA.com: “Football unites us! No matter where you come from, you can forget your problems for a while simply by playing our sport.”
An example of that can be found in Lebanon, where many Armenians have been able to settle into a society known for its diversity, thanks in part to football. Though the country’s Armenian community has its own customs and traditions, over the last few decades the sport has allowed them to earn a place in the hearts of Lebanese people.
The three thousand-strong crowd that flocked to see the “Armenian” derby between third division sides Homenmen and Homenetmen two years ago showed the love that Lebanese people of Armenian extraction have for football. That attendance was higher than those attracted by a good number of the country’s premier league matches.
One of the best-known Lebanese players with Armenian roots is Wartan Ghazarian, until recently the national team’s leading goalscorer, a status now held by current Cedars captain Roda Antar. A veteran of two FIFA World Cup™ qualification campaigns, Ghazarian formed part of the side that represented Lebanon in the country’s sole AFC Asian Cup appearance, 16 years ago.
Discussing the significant contribution made by players of Armenian extraction to the development of Lebanese football, Ghazarian told FIFA.com: “When Homenmen and Homenetmen were in the top flight, there were a lot of players of Armenian origin in the national team, as many as five at one time.”
He added: “Homenmen and Homenetmen draw on players from the Armenian community, though a lot of them play with other clubs. They’ve made a big contribution because they’ve proven their talent, both at club and international level.”
Faith in the future
Since Ghazarian’s last appearance for Lebanon, in a Korea/Japan 2002 qualifier against Thailand on 30 May 2001, the number of players of Armenian origin featuring in the national team has dropped to zero, with Hagob Donabedian being the last of them in 2006.
Not one featured in the Lebanon side that reached the final round of the qualification competition for Brazil 2014, in which the Cedars earned creditable wins over Korea Republic and Iran, both of whom went on to qualify for the world finals.
The same is also true of the Lebanon squad currently contesting the Russia 2018 qualifiers. Acquitting themselves well in Group G, alongside Korea Republic, Kuwait, Myanmar and Laos, the Lebanese remain in contention for a return to the final qualifying round.
The absence of an Armenian contingent in the national side can perhaps be explained by Homenmen and Homenetmen’s slide down the divisions, though Ghazarian also pointed to other factors: “The fact of the matter is that players are not getting into Lebanese youth teams, which explains why the big clubs don’t have any players from the Armenian community.”
A member of the backroom staff with Lebanese Premier League club Tripoli, Ghazarian added: “Homenmen and Homenetmen used to take a lot more interest in young players before. If that changes, then we might start seeing more players come out of the Armenian community and make an impact on the domestic scene and with the national team.”
That change could already be taking place, with Lebanon coach Miodrag Radulovic calling up Armen Khadarian and Shant Kevorkian to his U-23 team, a decision that Ghazarian hopes will lead to the return of his brethren to the senior set-up and, who knows, to a long-awaited place at the World Cup.