Controversial Euro 2012 qualifier still on Armenia’s mind as they face Ireland

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s extraordinary career in European club competitions began at the Brandywell in 2007

A vital qualifier for the Republic of Ireland decided by a referee’s crucial error in failing to spot a handball. But this is not Thierry Henry in the Stade de France in 2009. Instead, it is the most important match in Armenian history that took place at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.

The two countries were drawn together in qualifying for Euro 2012 and unusually met in the opening and closing round of matches. Ireland won the opener 1-0 in Yerevan thanks to a Keith Fahey goal but Armenia improved over the campaign to such an extent that a win in Dublin would see them leapfrog their opponents into second place.

Armenia’s hopes of securing a first ever playoff place imploded after just 26 minutes when goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky was sent off for handling the ball outside his area. Television replays later showed that Berezovsky had chested the ball clear moments after Irish striker Simon Cox had handled it. With their reserve keeper injured, Armenia were forced to introduce third-choice Arsen Petrosyan for his first and last international cap. Ireland scrambled a 2-1 win thanks to a comedic own goal by Valeri Aleksanyan and a Richard Dunne strike but also finished with 10 men following a late red card for Kevin Doyle.

Armenia’s best team would finish third despite scoring an incredible 22 goals — more than Russia (17) and Ireland (15) who both qualified for the finals. The leading scorer in the group was Henrikh Mkhitaryan, one of whose six goals was Armenia’s consolation at Lansdowne Road.

Mkhitaryan had introduced himself to an Irish audience two years earlier when he scored a brilliant hat-trick for Armenia’s under-21 team in a 4-1 victory over Ireland in a 2011 European Championships qualifier. Mkhitaryan comes from a famous footballing family and his father, Hamlet, was a striker with FC Ararat Yerevan and won two caps for Armenia before dying of a brain tumour aged just 33.

In 2016 Mkhitaryan became the only Armenian to feature in the Premier League when he joined Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund for £26 million and became the first Armenian to win a major European trophy when he scored in Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Ajax in the 2017 Europa League final.

Soon afterwards Mkhitaryan moved to Arsenal and was instrumental in their qualifying for the 2019 Europa League final. But in one of the worst piece of scheduling in football history the final between Arsenal and Chelsea (whose grounds are seven miles apart in London) was played 2,500 miles away in Baku. Mkhitaryan missed the final over safety concerns due to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In 2019 Mkhitaryan joined Roma with whom he won the inaugural Europa Conference League last month. Luckily for Ireland, Mkhitaryan retired from international football in March as his country’s all-time leading scorer with 32 goals having been named Armenian player of the year 10 times.

Mkhitaryan’s extraordinary career in European club competitions began at the Brandywell in July 2007 as a substitute for Pyunik Yerevan against Derry City in a Champions League match that ended 0-0. However, Armenia’s future captain was not the most famous leader visiting the Maiden City that day as reflected in one memorable newspaper headline: “Dalai Lama fails to inspire Derry as Pyunik hold firm”.

The Armenian side won that tie 2-0 but more recently Pyunik have struggled in Europe and in 2019 they lost 8-0 on aggregate to Wolves in the Europa League with Ireland’s Matt Doherty scoring the opening goal. The greatest ever performance by an Armenian team came in 1975 when Ararat Yerevan reached the last eight of the European Cup. In the second round Ararat were paired with Cork Celtic with the Armenian side winning the first leg 2-1 at Flower Lodge and progressed on a 7-1 aggregate.

Ararat’s reward was a glamour quarter-final clash with Bayern Munich’s best team that Franz Beckenbauer was midway through leading to three consecutive European Cup victories. The Germans won the tie 2-1 but Ararat’s 1-0 victory in the second leg remains the finest result by an Armenian side.

Stephen Kenny will be familiar with a number of the Armenian squad as he was manager of the Ireland under-21 team that played them twice during qualifying for the 2021 European Championships. In September 2019 a debut goal by 17-year-old Troy Parrott secured Ireland a 1-0 victory in Tallaght Stadium and two months later Kenny’s team won the return fixture in Yerevan by the same scoreline thanks to a Zack Elbouzedi strike.

The Ireland under-19 team have even happier memories of Armenia, who were hosts for the 2019 European Championships in which Tom Mohan’s side qualified for the semi-finals before losing 4-0 to defending champions Portugal. Ireland’s current under-19 team beat Armenia 4-0 in March in a European Championship elite round qualifier played at St George’s Park in England.

In 2019, Forbes magazine reported that Armenia is the country where soccer player salaries are most equitable with the general population with fans on average earning $400 more than players in a domestic Premier League where many clubs let supporters in for free. Perhaps unsurprisingly their better players are often keen to move abroad with captain Varazdat Haroyan playing for Cádiz where last September he became the first Armenian to score in La Liga. Sargis Adamyan has just completed a successful loan spell at Club Brugge by winning the Belgian title and Tigran Barseghyan has just won the Slovakian championship with Slovan Bratislava.

Armenia have never played in a major championship although both Youri Djorkaeff and Alain Boghossian, who won the 1998 World Cup with France, have Armenian parents. Since March 2020 Armenia have been managed by Spaniard Joaquín Caparrós whose “Batman” nickname refers to a supposed physical resemblance to actor Michael Keaton. Caparrós started well securing an immediate promotion to League B of the Nation’s League followed by an extraordinary week in March 2021 during which Armenia won their first three qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup defeating Liechtenstein, Iceland and Romania.

However, Capparos’ superpowers then began to wane dramatically as Armenia won just one of their next 11 games finishing with a humiliating 9-0 defeat to Norway in their last match in March. Still things could always be worse — in 2019 Armenia’s woman’s team lost a World Cup qualifier to Belgium 19-0.