On the Frontline for 44 Days: the footballers in Nagorno-Karabakh who became soldiers overnight4 min read

 In Blog, Caucasus, Civil Society
When Azerbaijani forces started their advance on Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, a football team based in the region’s capital became caught in a warzone. Now, their head coach tells us, they are looking to the future and a return to the football pitch.

One morning in September 2020, the players of Lernayin Artsakh, a football club based in Stepanakert, were meant to travel to play a routine away match in the Armenian First League. Instead, they were woken up by shells dropping on their city.

It was the beginning of an Azerbaijani armed offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has governed itself as the Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh since 1991. Though the population is predominantly ethnic Armenian, it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the legacy of a disputed border imposed during its Soviet past. The two sides fought for control over the enclave for many years in the 1990s. This time, the war lasted six weeks. Almost all of the team’s players were drafted onto the frontline to fight.

“It’s psychologically hard to re-engage in trainings,” says Slava Gabrielian, the club’s head coach. “Mentally, the players are still focused on many other issues.”

Not an even war

Though Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over this land before, last year’s conflict was unlike the others. As Lernayin’s footballers went to war with guns in hand, they were faced by an Azerbaijani military that was heavily armed.

Due to an aggressive military spending policy for the last decade and support from Turkey, Azerbaijan was able to use state-of-the-art drone technology to devastating effect. In just six weeks, they overwhelmed local Armenian forces, claiming control over large parts of the region before a ceasefire was agreed. By then over 5,000 people had died, with many casualties on both sides.

“The players were on the frontline for 44 days,” says Gabrielian. “Thank God, all of them returned safe and rejoined the team.”

Though they cannot play league matches there, the team is back training in their Stepanakert stadium, which only suffered minimal damage during the war / Lernayin Artsakh

Whilst none of the players were seriously harmed, many had friends and relatives who were. The team’s goalkeeper, Erik Khachatryan, has a video on his phone of a drone striking the vehicle which his best friend was driving. Throughout the war, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence routinely published these sorts of videos on YouTube, and even screened them in public squares of Baku. The videos would often feature footage of strikes on Armenian tanks, armoured cars and even individual soldiers fleeing for safety.

Just two weeks after the ceasefire, with only one training session under their belts and the memories of war still fresh in their minds, the players had a football match to play again. None of the team really wanted to play, but with the prospect of eviction from the league if the club missed four matches in a row, they felt obliged. 

As the Artsakh Republic comes to terms with the destruction, displacement and death caused by the war, the football club is hoping to return to some degree of normality.

A team that is used to playing away from home

Lernayin Artsakh’s home is Stepanakert, the Republic’s capital. However, due to the region’s disputed status, the team is registered in mainland Armenia to be able to compete in UEFA football competitions.

While they train in their 12,000-seater Stepanakert stadium, they travel 130 kilometres to the town of Sisian, along a mountain road controlled by Russian peacekeepers, so that they can play their “home” matches there.

Smiles from the players as they train in freezing winter conditions / Lernayin Artsakh

The head coach is optimistic. “Trainings are advancing at a normal pace, as planned by the coaches,” he says. “During the war, the Stepanakert stadium was not destroyed, only the seating area was partially damaged [so we can still train there].”

In spite of these difficulties, the team managed to put on a string of good performances prior to the winter break. In the four games they played between 24 November and 8 December, they won two matches and lost two. Gabrielian hopes for a high-placed finish in the league.

“Our team is moving in accordance with the plan, and we will do our best to ensure further successes of Lernayin Artsakh,” he says.

They fought for their homeland in the trenches and now they will fight for it where they belong: on the football pitch.

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