The Game

Since you read my blog, there’s a good chance you know I grew up playing soccer. I loved it! I was never as interested in watching soccer though. However, things have changed in the last 4 years or so. Now I thoroughly enjoy watching the game too (although playing soccer is significantly more fun than watching it, which I can’t say about other sports like baseball).

Bonus points if you can find 2004 Kevin

Despite not being a soccer fanatic early on, I was lucky enough to attend a variety of games. There are distant memories of Sangamon State and a game winning bicycle kick, trips to Chicago to see the Fire, and of course SLU soccer. I’ll never forget our dorm floor winning the spirit competition while I simultaneously lost my keys and wallet in one of my first days of college. Running around campus in a togo looking for your wallet is not fun.

Attending soccer games has given me some great memories. I can remember the first time walking up to a Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field and being amazed at the diversity. The announcements were done in 3 languages: English, Spanish, and Polish. I just couldn’t believe it.

The most high-profile game I ever attended was probably the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Chicago. If I remember correctly, the US destroyed Nigeria. And while that was a great experience, I have never gotten a feeling for the euphoria soccer provides for other nations. So, attending my first game in “Europe” on Saturday was quite exciting.

Despite Armenia’s ambiguous geographical location, they are considered part of Europe as far as FIFA is concerned. So, they take place in Euro 2012 Qualifiers, just like England, Germany, Spain, and all the other European nations. Euro 2012 is a cup for European teams that is organized every 4 years, offset 2 years from the World Cup. The class of European football means that this tournament is seen as a quasi-World Cup that helps tide people over for 4 years.

Armenia has never qualified for a World Cup or Euro since its independence. That fact, coupled with their 2nd place position in the Group B qualifying group, meant that the game against Russia on Saturday would be one of the most important in their young history. You also must consider the political and geographical dynamics to put the game into proper context. Russia is like Armenia’s big brother – protecting it from bullies, giving it a noogie from time to time, and selling it some discounted anti-aircraft weapons. Armenia’s 2.x million people vs. Russia’s 140 million. Biggest country in the world versus one of the smallest. You get the idea.

So of course I jumped on the opportunity when a fellow volunteer organized a ticket purchase. Tickets sold out quickly and passports were required to buy one. It was the most sought-after ticket in Armenian soccer history.

As we walked to the stadium from the Peace Corps office, you could feel the energy in the city. Roads were being blockaded. Cars drove through the streets with Armenian flags proudly waving. And a bunch of Americans marched towards the stadium in Armenian flag hats and facepaint. The street leading up to the stadium was slightly surreal. Normally in America you would see people hawking bottled water, t-shirts, and other crap. Here in Armenia the goods of choice were sunflower seeds. Everywhere!

Security Checkpoint 1

Approaching the stadium, we saw a big mass of people and some security. The Armenian police force had teamed up with the military to make several security checkpoints on the stadium entrance. They would corral a large amount of people and make us wait. Then a moment later some of the group would get let in. They would then block us again. In this way we were herded, much like cattle, through 3 different security checkpoints. Amongst the chaos there were Armenians, who were perhaps surprised or just plain confused about the American group walking around in their colors. Some diasporans began talking to me and another PCV. Then one of the diasporans asked the other something in Armenian about where do we work. I started answering in Armenian to the shock of the diasporans. They and their Russian friends all started laughing, but I couldn’t tell if it was at the situation or at me. Speaking of Russians, they were out in full force. Their pasty skin, light hair, and sharp eyes and noses would have given them away if it weren’t for the smattering of Russia clothing, scarves, and hats. Oh yeah, the Russian they spoke would have given them away too!

After finally getting through all the checkpoints, we were within striking distance of the stadium. The stadium was old and probably not the correct choice for the game (there is the Hrazdan stadium which is much larger and appears more modern too). It is a simple bowl with no concourse or concessions of any kind. You just walk up to an exterior gate, climb a few stairs, and you’re inside. Oh wait, it wasn’t that easy.

With 10 minutes to spare, we thought we were in great shape. That feeling quickly evaporated when we saw our gate closed and locked. A crowd of people on the stairs were pleading with the police on the other side of the gate. I could hear the roar of the crowd inside, but could see nothing. We made our way to the top of the stairs and started pleading our case. We have tickets, we just need to get inside. The police said that there was no room. Now I could hear the national anthem playing. The situation started getting more tense the closer it got to kickoff. The other gates nearby were the same situation. A mix of Armenians, Americans, and Russians all stood on the steps frantically trying to persuade the emotionless police officers to open the gate. After a few more minutes it was obvious the game had started, by the roars of the crowd. You could feel the energy from the crowd, yet you couldn’t join them. It was a terrible feeling.

Toms Unenq (We Have Tickets)

We kept trying to get in, because we didn’t know what else to do. One Armenian man kept saying, “I have a ticket! I have a ticket! I came from Georgia for this game!” But nothing we said was working. Everyone I asked had no good reason why they wouldn’t let us in. Then I found a guy with a radio among the military patrol, police, and German sheppards. He told me, “just wait”. How ridiculous is that? You buy a ticket, get to the game early, and then you can’t go inside because of some power trip by the police. I was mad, frustrated, depressed, and losing hope all at once.

Usages: Euro Qualifiers, Zombie Attacks, etc.

Then a couple of our people got through another gate. They tried to plead with the guards but to no avail. The situation seemed hopeless. A Russian guy came up to me and suggested we go try another gate. So I left our group and went with the commie to another gate. Just as we got there the guards were closing it. We pleaded with them in Russian and Armenian. It was funny because he was trying to use my American status to get us both in. Didn’t work. We tried another one. Nope. We tried a third without luck. The Russian dude was still talking to the guards when I took off. Now I realized that my group wasn’t there. They got through when I wasn’t there! Nice move Kevin! So I was on my own to find a way in.

I walked all the way to the other side of the stadium to try my luck. I was denied, as my ticket was obviously for another section. I climbed another set of stairs, which were empty, and slipped through the gate, which was left open. A few others followed me in. I cautiously went up a few stairs, until I was met by the police. I showed my ticket to the officer. He started to look at the section number. I then explained that I knew it was the wrong section, but mine was closed. He gave me a little nod and tore the edge of the ticket. Finally. I was in.

“I’ll just walk around the bowl to the area where the Americans are sitting,” I thought. Then I noticed the big blue fences that separated sections. Then I decided I would just sit down somewhere….but where? All the seats were full. I started walking, and right before I got to the blue fence, I saw some Armenians sitting on the aisle stairs. I plopped down next to them to watch the game at last. Looking up at the clock, it was the 36th minute already. I missed almost half the game waiting to get in. But the score was surprisingly still 0-0.

I didn’t know either team very well, so I started watching the one player I knew I could recognize – Arshavin of Russia. He was diminutive and reminded me of some of our midfielders we’ve had at SLU. The half closed out with a few Russian corners and a couple good chance from the Armenians. Halftime was my chance to go sit with my friends.

After getting blocked a couple more times, I got in to my section. I found the Americans and was relieved/pissed to find a bunch of empty seats belonging to us. Why didn’t they let us in before? So stupid. I watched the 2nd half and can’t say it was beautiful soccer. It was a bit sloppy and nothing magical happened. Armenia made some decent counterattacks and had some clutch tackles in their defensive third. Russia definitely had the edge and should have won, but the game ended in a 0-0 draw. It was basically a victory for Armenia. The crowd was pleased.

Finally

For me, it was more about the experience than the game. I chanted, cheered, did the wave, and even helped some Armenians wave their flag. I screamed as much as I could despite an already hoarse voice from a cold. I blew my little horn thing loudly and quite well. I had fun, despite the frustration of not getting in. I felt bad for the Russians who had the same problem, except that they came FROM RUSSIA to see this game. Armenia could learn a lot from America in terms of how to handle logistics for a sporting event. It’s a good thing Azerbaijan didn’t attack, because I think at least half of the Armenian military was outside the stadium twiddling its thumbs. Armenia definitely shouldn’t get to host any more Euro qualifiers after such a poor display.

In all, it was an interesting introduction to European soccer. The best thing is that it leaves much room for improvement. I’m sure I’ll see a better match in a better venue at some point in my life. But I’m glad I went.

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5 Responses to “The Game”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    Same thing happened in America. Just ask the poor fans who had tickets to the Superbowl and could not get in.

  2. icenugget Says:

    True! Only difference is they are suing the NFL and will be compensated in some form. I should sue for 1000 AMD as I missed at least 1/3rd of the game 😀

  3. Jared Says:

    I do not see Kevin in the photo but I see a very young and oddly fit Steven Segal.

    Reading the story I felt, your frustration. Like it was one of those old computer RPGs. You get to a point where you have tried everything possible to get past the “security door” in the game but cannot, and you get that same stupid message “This door is locked” THANKS RANDOM SECURITY GAURD: I Know the damn door is locked…You wander around the map for hrs trying to figure it out, only to realize you had to walked past the key like a 1000 times that was located on the dead security guards corpse, you had Karate chopped to death!!!! DAMN YOU!!

  4. Peter Says:

    Dude,

    Such frustration! ‘Europe’ is about as bureaucratic as anywhere (outside of maybe china/communist countries). It’s all hurry up and wait while I take my smoke break. I’m glad you got to see some of the game though. You and I will definitely make it to a game or two someday in Europe.

    SLU photo – this brought back so many memories from what was probably one of the top 5 weeks of my life. Couple thoughts: Note that the Ohio clique is already forming. I can find no less than two girls from this shot who I kissed. Dave Busa’s hair is at a record length. Jimmy has clown makeup around his mouth as if he is John William Gacy. Note the absence of Stephanie Wilga, a rarity for freshman year. Lastly, and most importantly, I spy eyebrows of envy! Jared nailed it with Stephan Segal. Where even is that video? How is that not on youtube?

  5. icenugget Says:

    Wow, look at these references! Steven Segal, eyebrows of envy, poorly designed RPGs?? This is why I miss you guys.

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