Paul Vartan Sookiasian
The essay was originally published on Repat Armenia website.
As an American currently living in Armenia, getting the chance to see a soccer (make that football) game in Armenia was a totally new experience for two reasons. Not just because it was my first chance to see the rabid dedication of Armenian sports fans, but being an American this was my first time seeing a professional soccer game, ever. As a participant in the Birthright Armenia program, I embraced the opportunity to go over the top with my fellow volunteers, painting our faces red, blue, and orange and marched to the game with laughing and singing. We entered Hrazdan Stadium with thousands of other fans with intense hope in our hearts. In a way, we all knew we were going to lose. We were up against Italy, a powerhouse of a team not exactly known for playing clean either, but the hope was there. Having seen the exuberant reactions of Armenians fans in the streets after Armenia’s win away at Malta the month before, I was praying for a win to experience that again to an even higher degree. The game got off to a rocky start with an early goal against Armenia which shouldn’t have happened, but the stadium erupted when Mkhitaryan scored an equalizing goal in the 28th minute. Though there was never another goal from Armenia and it eventually fell 1-3, the fans didn’t give in. I remember the constant reassurances of ‘lav a’ being shouted by a fan behind me no matter what happened.
Sitting in the stadium, it gave me a chance to reflect. I knew that I wasn’t quite “one” with the locals in attendance. I have only been in Armenia a month, am not fluent in the language, was not raised and molded by the same society, and frankly am not even much of a soccer (err… football) fan, yet in that moment we were all one. While from my vantage the difference lies between me as an American-Armenian and them as Hayastansis, I know there is no single Hayastansi identity either. I know the disparate and unique backgrounds of each of my fellow volunteers with whom I was sitting, and I know that diversity extended to those thousands there from whom we naturally feel a bit of distance. That did not matter though, as we were all one in our support of our team, our nation, and our people. This crowd of Armenians was as one to us, and we were part of it. And perhaps that’s the ultimate metaphor for what our Armenian ideally should be, a united being with a head poking up near the top of the world in the Caucasus Mountains, and a body which extends throughout the world. Though the body is scattered and shaped by the numerous countries it finds itself in, all those parts of the body find themselves connected by a common Armenian thread which connects them all back to Armenia. Despite being aware of these differences, the longer I am here the closer I feel to these people and recognize the issues they face. While the ideal of a unified Armenian body isn’t reality, and Armenia is beset by as many internal struggles and conflicts as it is by external ones, it is all set aside and forgotten for a great moment of sport to remind us all that ultimately we are all one people despite our differences.
Though we left the game in defeat, there was no oppressive feeling of failure hanging over us. Our team had played hard and well against a dominant foe, and their performance left no reason to feel shame. We walked back into the center of Yerevan in a crowd of thousands of our fellow Armenians, soaking in their pride at having seen their team play a good game. No, it wasn’t the same as the jubilant celebration which could have been, but in a way seeing this dignity in defeat was almost as good. Ultimately the game’s outcome was no matter, but the feeling of joy and unity was.
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