The two teams enter the field, their flags ahead of them. On the right the home teams’ red, blue and orange tricolour with a white zig-zag chevron, on the left the seven alternate green and white stripes with a red canton depicting a white hand and seven stars, the flag of the guests. Then, the teams align themselves for the national anthems. The green jerseys of Abkhazia sing Aiaaira, “Victory”, while the red jerseys of the hosts Nagorno-Karabakh sing Azat ow ankax Arc’ax, “Free and Independent Arc’ax (or Artsakh)”, referring to the ancient name of their nation when – between 189 b.C. and 387 A.D. – it used to be a province of the Kingdom of Armenia. On the terrace, some supporters hold a banner: UEFA, we also want to play football. The two squads are the national teams of two de facto independent unrecognised countries. Two countries fighting to have their sovereignty recognised by the international community. Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh mutually recognise each other and have such agreement with two other post-Soviet breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Transnistria. While Abkhazia is also recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, Nagorno-Karakakh isn’t recognised by any UN member.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has its roots in the Armenian-Azeri war of 1918-1920 and in the following division operated by the Soviet Union: the region, with an Armenian ethnic majority, was assigned to the Azeri SSR. At the end of the eighties, as the Soviet Union got closer to its unavoidable collapse, Karabakhi nationalism woke from its sleep, sparking mutual violence and ethnic cleansing campaigns between Karabakhis and Azeris. Lowsine Mowsayelyan of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Armenian service recalls heated footballing confrontations in 1987: a win by the capital Step’anakert team against a team from Kirovabad, nowadays Gəncə, ignited riots and ultimately forced Step’anakert to play its home matches in Azeri soil. From 1988 to 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan were at war with each other: the former, supported by Armenia, would win the conflict, defending its de facto independence and gaining a large slice of territory from Azerbaijan. Following 1994 the ceasefire was violated repeatedly and there have been episodes of open military confrontation. The situation is still tense between, on one side, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and, on the other, Azerbaijan: the political climate in the region remains tense, constantly threatening to escalate.
Abkhazia’s history is somewhat similar. Abkhazia is an autonomous region in Georgia which contrasted Tbilisi’s thrusts for independence from the Soviet Union and broke away from the Caucasian republic in 1992. After a Georgian military intervention re-established control over the region, the Abkhazians gained support from the Confederation of Mountain People of the Caucasus, an umbrella body comprising other northern Caucasus breakaway movements (among them Ossetians and Chechens) and Russian paramilitaries and mercenaries. The Abkhazian counter-offensive managed to repel Georgian forces and re-take the capital Suchumi on September 27th, 1993 – an assault in which the Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze himself narrowly escaped death. The two following weeks saw a campaign of ethnic cleansing – which came to be known as the Suchumi massacre – on behalf of the Abkhazians and their allies. The conflict escalated again in 2008, when Georgia tried to reassert control on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway republic. Russian military intervention in support of the two breakaway states would result in a heavy military defeat for Georgia.
Abkhazia’s football league started in 1994. Eight teams took part to the XVIII edition in 2011, three of them hailing from the capital Suchumi. Few details are known about this league, as even the complete winners’ table is unknown. According to Hans Schöggl of the football research and statistics website RSSSF, Nart Suchumi has won the league at least three times (2003, 2007 and 2009), while Gagra was champion in 2006. The 2012 league, according to the Dinamo Suchumi website, includes seven teams. After seventeen matches Gagra tops the league with a six-point buffer over Nart, and seven more points over Dinamo and Rica Gədout̢a (Gudauta in Georgian and Russian). Among the players who took part in the league is Anrik Tanija, an Abkhazian who played for Nart and had brief spells abroad: he played a handful of games for Žemčužina-Soči in the Russian league in 2003, until the team was dissolved for financial reasons, then played ten matchs for Yenicami Ağdelen in Nicosia, a team playing in the football league of another partially recognised country, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
In may, after FIFA gave – and later withdrew – permission to Kosovo to play friendly games against FIFA members, the president of the Abkhaz FA Džemal Gubaz announced he would appeal FIFA for provisional admission. In vain, as according to Vestnik Kavkaza the General Secretaries of FIFA and UEFA reassured Georgia that Abkhazia wouldn’t be recognised by the two footballing bodies. The Abkhazian national team played a friendly game in June against a Kuban’ Krasnodar youth team, beating them 2-1 with a squad which included both players from the Abkhazian league and a handful of players from the Russian league (notably two players from Luč-Ėnergija Vladivostok and one from Locomotiv Moscow). Oddly enough, in the final minutes of the game Abkhazia’s goal was guarded by the keeper of the Russiam women’s national team Elvira Todua, who was born in the region, in the town of Tk̄əarčal (Tqvarcheli in Georgian).
It is not clear whether Nagorno-Karabakh has a football league, although in 2009 a championship with nine teams, to be played between the months of August and November, was announced. The main team from the region, Leṙnayin Ġarabaġ Step’anakert, competed in the Armenian league system from 1995 to 2006, playing home games in the Armenian capital Erevan. In 2007, after gaining promotion to the championship’s top division, the team withdrew before the season kicked off. The history of Leṙnayin Ġarabaġ mirrors that of Qarabağ Ağdam, an Azeri ethnic team from Nagorno-Karabakh which was forced to move to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. In 1993 the team was to win the Azeri championship, also putting its hands on the first of three national cup titles. Qarabağ Ağdam also played three UEFA Cups, two Cup Winners’ Cups, one Intertoto Cup and three consecutive Europa Leagues.
The first match between Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh was held on September 25th in the Abkhazian capital Suchumi. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. The Abkhazians drew first blood in the 75th minute with a goal scored by their captain Beslan Gublija, a player of Luč-Ėnergija Vladivostok who also played for Chechen team Terek Groznyj. Gublija placed a free kick from a difficult position straight into the far post. The equaliser came five minutes later from Andranik Barikyan, a thirty-two year old from the Armenian club Širak Gyowmri. The return leg was played on October 21st in Step’anakert. The stadium, renovated in 2008, used to be entitled to Step’an Šahowmyan (or Stepan Šaumjan), a Menshevik leader of the Russian revolution also known as the “Caucasian Lenin”, whose name is also enshrined in the name of the city, Step’anakert. In front of the newly re-elected Karabakhi president Bako Sahakyan the hosts won 3-0. Andranik Barikyan scored once more, served by a cross from the right side. Davit’ Grigoryan from the Owlis (Ulisses) Erevan club doubled the score, exploiting a moment of confusion in the Abkhazian area. The third goal was scored in the second half by Semyon Mowradyan of Mika Erevan: served by a wonderful through-pass, he lifted the ball towards the goal just before the Abkhazian keeper threw himself at his feet. According to an interview released by national team coach Sargis Aġaǰanyan to Tert.am, the Karabakhi squad is financed by state budget and receives seventy million Armenian drams (around 135 thousand euros). The Asbarez website quotes Aġaǰanyan saying “This is one of the major steps in our post-war reality. This is our only chance to enter the international arena and stand under our national flag with our national anthem. This is already a different feeling”.