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Coping with the Blockade: The Football Club Split Apart

The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh has consequences for the entire society. Blankspot has met with the football club Lernayin Artsakh, who tells us how their team has been divided.

The clouds slowly move away over the mountains and are replaced with an intense red sun that is about to go down. A football coach’s voice is heard sometimes shouting instructions, sometimes whistling in the whistle while the female players challenge each other in passing exercises.

There are only thirteen players at the training. The other half couldn’t come. They are still in Nagorno-Karabakh. The club Lernayin Artsach, or ‘Mountainous Karabakh,’ originally comes from the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert.

But just before the war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, they moved their formal activities to the town of Sisian in Armenia to be able to participate in European competitions. For this season, they have moved their operations to Vayk, just over an hour from Sisian.

The European football federation UEFA does not allow teams registered in Nagorno-Karabakh to be part of the Armenian league, as Nagorno-Karabakh is formally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, despite the region being self-governing since 1991. After the move to Armenia, the operations quickly professionalized.

Although the men’s team was quickly relegated from the Armenian Premier League as fast as they had entered, which can partly be seen because of the turbulent situation the club has operated in.

Many of the players were stuck on the other side of the blockade. The women’s team, consisting of only 25 players compared to the men’s nearly tenfold, has invested heavily during this time.

Almost none of the players in Vayk on this day are from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Coach Arthur explains that the coaching staff is suffering because several of them are on the wrong side of the blockade. Photo by Rasmus Canbäck.

Coach Arthur explains that they have difficulty assembling enough players for the matches, but they are doing their best.

“With only thirteen players here and twelve in Stepanakert, it is, of course, difficult. If someone falls ill, we hardly have a full squad. Most of the girls we have recruited from other parts of Armenia,” he says.

There have also been problems with the coaching staff.

“We still have a lot of our operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, even though we formally play in Armenia. Many of the coaches are still there. Those of us who are not from there try to keep the teams together. It is, of course, challenging.”

It’s not easy for the team. The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh has been ongoing since December of last year and has intensified in several periods.

First, it was blocked by so-called environmental activists who claimed to protest against mining in Nagorno-Karabakh. It soon became clear that they were government-sponsored, and their motives were something else. They disappeared on the same day the Azerbaijani military began building a border post between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Until then, at least Russian peacekeeping forces and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could transport both food and sick patients.

Since June, the blockade has been completed, and in July, the ICRC issued a press release stating that they cannot work unhindered.

The humanitarian corridor, known as the Lachin Corridor, is the only road leading between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is formally monitored by Russian peacekeeping forces, but Azerbaijan has taken control of the passages.

In February, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Azerbaijan to guarantee freedom of movement through it. The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the United States, and almost all major human rights organizations criticize Azerbaijan for not complying with the order.

Mariam tells that she was cheering for Sweden in the World Cup this year. Photo by Rasmus Canbäck.

Lernayin Artsakh’s activities are just one example of how people have been separated by the blockade. For the girls on the football field, it means they need to put in extra effort, says Mariam, one of the players as she gasps for breath.

“Many of our friends are on the other side of the blockade, and we really miss them on the field. We try to show them pictures, send videos, and above all, play for them. We get energy from their support,” she says.

She has just run up to us after an intense exercise, still catching her breath. Sweat is dripping down her forehead.

“When we play, we do it for them. Winning matches means everything to us,” says Mariam.

The coach calls her in the background, and she looks over her shoulder. She understands she needs to run back.

“We train almost every day,” she says as she turns around. “Without training, we’ll never make it to the Champions League, will we?”

Top Image: The players prepare for a new exercise. Photo by Rasmus Canbäck.

About the Author: Rasmus Canbäck was on a reporting trip to Armenia in early September to write about the consequences of the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. Follow and support Blankspot to read his upcoming reports from the trip.