YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The head of Armenia’s Football Federation on Thursday condemned the Armenian Ministry of Sports for having for years refused to recognize soccer star Henrikh Mkhitaryan as one of the country’s best athletes.

The ministry awards and honors the top ten Armenian athletes each year. Until this year they were supposedly chosen by sports journalists working for various media outlets.

Mkhitaryan repeatedly did not make the cut despite his global fame and huge popularity at home. The 28-year-old attacking midfielder plays for Manchester United, one of the world’s most prestigious clubs. He is also the captain of Armenia’s national football team.

His failure to win the annual awards raised serious questions about the fairness and transparency of the selection process, forcing the ministry to change its rules earlier this year. The winners of the 2017 awards were decided not only by reporters but also ordinary Armenians voting by text message.

Thanks to the popular vote, Mkhitaryan scored more points than any other sportsmen nominated for the awards. Three-times world wrestling champion Artur Aleksanyan and chess grandmaster Levon Aronian came in second and third respectively.

The Ministry of Sports did not single out Mkhitaryan when it published the results of this year’s contest on its website. It only listed the names of the ten athletes in alphabetical order.

“The best athletes were chosen by the public, not the chairman of the weightlifting federation or the sports minister,” Ruben Hayrapetian, the Football Federation chairman, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an interview.

Hayrapetian denounced the previous contests as a “farce.” “For at least four or five years our national sports bosses pocketed Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s chances of being chosen among the ten best athletes,” he charged.

Hayrapetian dismissed arguments that unlike Armenia footballers, wrestlers, boxers, weightlifters and chess players have won medals in European and world championships. “Mkhitaryan has made Armenia much more recognizable than other athletes,” he said, arguing that football is by far the most popular spot around the world.

The current ministers of sports and youth affairs, Hrachya Rostomian, is widely regarded as a figure very close to Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman heading the Armenian National Olympic Committee. Tsarukian and Hayrapetian have a long history of mutual dislike and feud.

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