It’s about 15 minutes until kick off, and most people at Yerevan’s Hrazdan Stadium are packing up to leave. What was once one of the biggest stadiums in the Soviet Union is now more frequently visited by shoppers heading to the market that sprawls around its car park rather than football fans seeking a fix of Armenian Premier League action.
First-time fans might be forgiven for struggling to find a way in: no ticket office, no turnstiles. Instead it’s just a question of finding an open gate and strolling into the vast stand. With 55,000 seats to choose from, and with crowds of a few dozen, there’s not much hassle about finding a spot.
Today’s action comes from the start of the 2010 season. Impuls Dilijan, a newly-formed team from the mineral spa town not far from Sevan, is visiting Kilikia Yerevan. The hosts came into the Premier League in place of Pyunik Yerevan, who stepped down in 1999 due to financial problems before returning to dominate Armenian football for a decade. Kilikia, meanwhile, ran into their own cashflow concerns. In 2001 they were demoted for failing to pay league membership fees. Despite a huge home stadium, the club was never able to build a successful team that could get anywhere near filling that vast bowl and after bumping along in the bottom half of the table they folded at the end of the 2010 season.
Impuls, meanwhile, lasted one more season before folding after a trio of mid-table finishes. With post-Soviet Armenian football denuded of its brightest talents there’s not much incentive for local fans to come out to games; the national team, inspired by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, attracts rather bigger crowds but the local league struggles to get much attention. The evening of this game even saw an ice hockey international, part of the 2010 IIHF World Hockey Championship, draw a bigger crowd across the other side of town.
Small crowd, huge stadium, flat atmosphere. The arena, built in a natural bowl on the slopes of the Hrazdan River, was the fourth largest in the USSR. On its opening day 78,000 fans came to see Ararat Yerevan beat Kairat Almaty 3-0. Similar attendances saw Ararat lift the Soviet title and beat the mighty Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer and all, in Europe, only to go out on aggregate. The USSR’s national team also played here on occasion.
Hrazdan was a second-generation Soviet stadium, built in double-quick time in 1969-70 to mark the 50th anniversary of Armenia’s accession to the USSR in 1920. The site was picked out decades earlier by Anastas Mikoyan, a close ally of Stalin and the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR (not to be confused with Mikoyan the aircraft engineer of MiG fame) and the design is a typical concrete bowl – increasingly cracked and faded – with the inevitable athletics track around the edge. A second tier rises up on one side, facing back towards the city centre. Seats were added in 2008 during the first big post-Soviet renovation of Hrazdan.
On the field, neither Kilikia nor Impuls could offer much. The game never got going and was eventually settled by a 79th-minute goal from Romeo Jenebian to give Impuls the win. The small crowd was subdued, often more concerned with reading their newspapers than watching the action. The stadium had little sign of other spectator facilities. Like many former Soviet republics, Armenia’s sporting heritage is suffering in the new era. Local football fans are more likely to follow Europe’s top leagues on TV rather than come and watch their local teams, while the talismanic Ararat team suffered the indignity of relegation to the First Division for the 2010 season and is now among the top flight’s also-rans.
Things could improve: in 2012 work started on a 6 million-euro upgrade of the stadium, putting a roof on the whole building with the aim of hosting UEFA finals. Armenia’s national team has produced some intermittent signs of life, without ever seriously threatening to qualify for a major tournament. But in a small, relatively impoverished country with a low-profile domestic league, it’s not easy to see much of a way forwards for club football.