Playing with history – The “G” factor

In December, a film critic friend of mine brought me to a private screening of “The Water Diviner”, or “Elderly Gladiator with a Happy Ending”, as she named it. Apart from the tragically untalented female lead and the need for Russell Crowe to have a love interest, there were some poignant moments that tugged at the heart-strings.

Any parent would find it a difficult watch, though when it fully descended into a Turkish-Australian-American circle jerk, the film was already well off the rails. It surprised me that a man with Crowe’s intelligence, experience and depth of knowledge would not see a potential minefield for the “epic”.

The very people, Turkish Patriots, that he was lauding, also helped perpetrate the first genocide of the 20th century. And worse, the release of the movie coincided with the 100th Anniversary of Armenian Genocide.

New Zealander Crowe, as Director, was not bound in any way to mention the Genocide, nor to challenge the Turkish money that made the movie possible. As it was more about remembering the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and leveraging sentiment.

For ANZAC, 1915 is all about Gallipoli and the brave boys who died fighting for one group of Empires against another. 1915 is not about the invasion of a sovereign state, it’s about striking back at the Bosch and their allies and gloriously failing to open another front. Yet for many aware of the tragic events that were known at the time, a blind eye and deaf ear were given to the deaths of a million and more ethnic Armenians.

But what on earth has this to do with football or the price of a pint? I’ll start by going back two summers when a client, an Armenian International, was looking to move clubs. He was stuck unpaid and unhappy at his Armenian club and in need of a scene change.

His options were limited regionally as in Russia the usual slaughter of innocents (better known as the fight to get footballers paid) would leave him worse off than in Armenia and because he was not part of the corrupt clique in Armenia he was not going to Ukraine.

We had four options, League of Ireland, Turkey, Malta and Greece. The Greek club, Veria, was recommended to me by a Serbian coach, though they were all over the place so we passed. Malta I knew too well to have another client suffer the corruption and insanity that is passes for football there.

So it came down to trials in Ireland or a definite contract with a decent Turkish 1.Lig (second level) club, Balıkesirspor. The Turks offered $5000 a month, great bonuses, an apartment, car and a two-year extension option at double the salary if they were promoted.

For our company it was a winner, for the player it was a winner and the club were doing all they could to get him. We even had a Skype with the head of the supporters club! The player’s uncle was for it, stating that “I’m Armenian, but business is business.” The player, Arsen, laughed and simply said – “I don’t mind, but if the Turks don’t kill me, the people at home will. I’ll be stabbed in the front and the back.”

For Irish people we can understand this a little. We’ve a bigger ex-Imperial neighbour with whom we’ve a painful history. We suffered longer and more brutally under the British yoke having been sold out by the Pope and the King of Leinster, though this is not to dim what happened to Turkish-Armenians at the start of the last century.

Beginning with being on the (right, but) wrong side of a counter-coup in 1909 and continuing to 1917 when their former allies turned on them, more than one million Armenians were killed with millions more displaced. While in his pre-Presidential days Barack Obama called it genocide, he now refuses to be drawn on commenting – after all Turkey is a partner in the war on whatever the latest fad is in the Middle East.

The need for recognition and closure on this continues to fester, with Australia still dealing with Armenian “terror plots”. The 1980 bombing of the Turkish Consulate in Melbourne one of just a number of such events. The continued refusal to even acknowledge what happened allows the radical (on all sides) to stir up trouble and even for unscrupulous sports fixers to get their way.

Aras Özbiliz was born in Istanbul and moved to Holland where he began playing football for his local team aged five. His family were all born in Turkey but from the region of modern-day Diyarbekir. He was spotted early by Ajax and signed for their Academy in 1998.

He went on to play for the first team between 2010 and 2012, during which time he was brought into the Armenian fold. Wherein lay the problem. Under no rules did he qualify for a passport. He holds Dutch citizenship but all his family and ancestors are Turkish – his own Turkicised family name a pointer to this.

He never had a chance to play for Holland, and Turkey would not look twice at him, so the Armenian President hurried through his citizenship and he debuted for the National Team in 2012.

The same year he moved in the most questionable circumstances from Kuban Krasnodar to Spartak Moscow. It is at the Russian version of FC Hollywood that the Armenian Genocide has spilled across into the sports arena.

At Spartak Moscow much was expected of the lightweight winger, though he has been inconsistent since his arrival, then misfortune struck. It was while on national team duty a year ago that he picked up the latest of his injuries which has seen him mainly left in the Reserves this season.

Yet the fact that he is a patchy player, with fitness issues and disappointed that others have shown up impressively in his place, didn’t seem to come to account when he was “misquoted” in a recent interview. He claimed that the reason he was not in the Spartak side is because Murat Yakin is a Turk and he (Aras) is Armenian and herein lies the reason for the coaches “harassment” and his exclusion from the team.

Oddly his team-mate, and fellow Armenian International, Yura Movsisyan has played after recovering from injury and stated that while he felt the team played “more beautifully under Karpin”, he felt fully supported by the Coach.

Swiss-born Yakin has suffered all manner of insults this season that range from the incredulous “What did he achieve as a footballer?” to the petty “What has he done as a coach?” to the downright pathetic “He is a foreigner and foreigners don’t understand Russian football.”

Yet despite the degrading behaviour of some fans and media, this latest has roots in self-interest, of a player, his sketchy agent and a dubious Spartak shareholder, who just happens to have Armenian heritage. While Aras might not be named “Brain of Russia” anytime soon, he has shown the intelligence to backtrack and apologise, saying he was misquoted.

He has, rightly, been fined by the club and within the club’s administration there is anger that such an issue would be brought up. The 49-times capped Swiss International Yakin is respected and liked for his decency and professionalism by club staff and it is acknowledged that he has a major task to match progress and expectations. Bringing the “G” factor into the equation to suit an agenda makes that task harder than ever.

Yakin was visibly upset last week and simply said that the words “wounded him deeply”. Of all the people to suffer such an insult it should not be him, the son of Turkish immigrants who (along with his brother Hakan) fully embraced his birthplace and has a very Swiss way of getting things done.

Yet in the zero-sum game currently at play, the biggest losers will be Yakin, Özbiliz and ultimately Spartak. The winner will be the aforementioned Spartak shareholder, Dzhevan Cheloyants, who was involved in bringing Movsisyan and Özbiliz to the club and dreams of bringing in Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund.

This former oilman and creature of Fedun’s Lukoil, loves the spotlight and since retiring in 2011 has been a fly in the Spartak ointment. A self-aggrandising and all-knowing figure that needs the attention that will make him feel worthwhile (joking – he is a married man with three grown daughters, so effectively he’s effectively a gelding who needs some sort of control in his life).

Typical of the publicity hungry football club Director, he was against Yakin’s hiring, against (then for) Karpin, against (then for) Laudrup and only two weeks ago said he doesn’t trust Yakin. He also said that while replacements have not been discussed for Yakin, he would not rule it out. Anything for the sweet air of acceptance and importance.

For a person drenched in the oil industry, a little ethnic manipulation and stereotyping is purely business.

And it all boils down to a simple point. In 1995 idiotic fans (many from English Premier League clubs) came to Dublin for the Ireland-England International and once a goal down and seeing their side facing destruction on the field, they figured on the destruction of Lansdowne Road.

Their Nazi salutes, violence and unrepentance was allowed by the open sore of centuries of mistrust, death and pain. Some (wrongly in my opinion) drew comparisons with Bloody Sunday of 1920, yet everything was in play in Mutually Assured Destruction.

Then in 1997 Tony Blair apologised and admitted Westminster guilt for the Great Irish Famine and suddenly 150 years of debate began to take on a different shape. So much so that ten years on from his speech the English Rugby Team came to Croke Park, scene of that November slaughter in 1920, and the only thing better than the emotion surrounding the anthems was the absolute hammering of an English side that would go on to a World Cup Final later in the year.

I know that this article is a bit longer than normal, with a lot of history and not enough football, though the silence of the international media (especially football) on events in Spartak, with a Turkish-born Dutch/Armenian, a Swiss-born Swiss International and a Chechen-born Armenian businessman dragging a 100-year-old Genocide into the sporting realm, brings into focus the complex and continuing situation that can see the deaths of more than a million human beings be used for political, financial and/or personal gain. And now I will only look at a sporting angle.

Acknowledging that the Armenian Genocide took place and an apology will not bring back the dead, however it will allow for a different dynamic in the internal and external Armenian dialogue and give the nation’s athletes a chance to not only advance their careers free of the manipulation of chancers like Cheloyants, but also for the Armenian National Teams to make a mark on the world stage. We got lucky in Ireland, we can only hope the same will happen for Armenia.

Author Details

Alan Moore
Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13. First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, now hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and the Capital Sports Stadium Shows at the RZD Arena and writing the odd article. Director of the Russian State Social University College in Moscow. And to make things more fun, he produces and hosts #ChampTalks for UNESCO, Moscow's Tolerance Centre and Capital FM.

2 thoughts on “Playing with history – The “G” factor

  1. As a Kiwi myself, I’m offended that you call Russell Crowe a New Zealander. He’s an Australian who happened to be born in New Zealand.

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