YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—In an unprecedented show of defiance, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and eight other key players of the Armenian national soccer team have strongly denied allegations by the embattled chairman of the Armenian Football Federation (AFF) that they or their teammates threw its last game.
Ruben Hayrapetian, a controversial government-linked businessman leading the AFF, voiced the match-fixing allegations in a November 25 interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He spoke following a series of street protests staged by the country’s largest football fan group, the First Armenian Front, demanding his resignation.
The fans hold him responsible for the team’s poor performance in the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European football championship in France. They point to his long-running interference in the selection of players and failure to hire a renowned coach.
Armenia ended the Euro 2016 campaign on October 11 with a 0-3 home defeat to Albania. Hayrapetian spoke of “treason” committed by Armenian players during that match but refused to name any of them. When asked by RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) whether he thinks that they deliberately lost the qualifier in return for money, he said, “That was definitely done by our players.”
Hayrapetian offered no evidence of the alleged match-fixing but pledged to prove his claims later on.
Nine Armenia international players reacted to the allegations in a joint statement sent to Armfootball.com and News.am news services on Sunday. “The rumors and speculation regarding the match against Albania are totally false,” they said. “We fully trust each player of our national team, and attempts to look for treason in our team will lead nowhere.”
“We are confident that all footballers share our opinion,” added the Armenian soccer stars, most of whom play for clubs in Europe and Russia. Mkhitaryan, who plays for a leading German club, Borussia Dortmund, is the most famous and popular of them. He was the team captain in the controversial match against Albania.
The signatories also bristled at Hayrapetian’s claims that some players feigned injuries or did not give their all during the Euro 2016 qualifiers. “We have always acted for the benefit of the national team, harming our health and, often times, our club careers,” they said.
Hayrapetian played down the players’ angry response when he met with members of another fan group, the Red Eagles, on Monday. “I didn’t say that the match was sold. I said that there was treason,” he said, contradicting his own claims.
“I can’t say that the game was sold but I will do everything to solve that case,” he added, according to Football365.am
Hayrapetian, who reportedly has had a warm rapport with Michel Platini, the suspended president of European football’s governing body, UEFA, also said that he plans to meet with the national team players and discuss “all issues” with them in January.
In their statement, Mkhitaryan and his teammates stopped short of demanding Hayrapetian’s resignation or threatening to stop playing for Armenia if he stays on as AFF chairman. But they did thank “all supporters of the national team.” “You have always cheered for our team, regardless of its results and the quality of its performance,” they said.
Commonly known as “Nemets Rubo,” Hayrapetian has long attracted controversy related to his status as the country’s top football executive and an influential government loyalist notorious for violent conduct. As recently as August, he avoided prosecution despite admitting that he beat up another entrepreneur.
In September, he was implicated in a violent attack on a member of an Armenian group critical of the government. He denied any involvement when questioned by law-enforcement authorities.
Three years ago, Hayrapetian was forced to step down as parliament deputy representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia following a brutal attack on several Armenian army medics who dined at a Yerevan restaurant owned by his family. One of them, Vahe Avetian, died while two others were seriously injured after arguing with men working at the restaurant.
Avetian’s death shocked the nation, sparking angry protests by civic activists against what they saw as a manifestation of impunity enjoyed by government-linked oligarchs. Some media outlets accused the AFF chief of sanctioning or even ordering the violence. He strongly denied those claims, however.
Later in 2012, Hayrapetian was accused of beating up a doctor working for FC Pyunik, a football club controlled by him. In 2014, he allegedly verbally and physically abused a young Pyunik player during a football match in Yerevan. Hayrapetian denied those allegations through the AFF’s press service.
Hayrapetian, 52, has been a staunch backer of President Sarkisian throughout Sarkisian’s seven-year rule. The tycoon holds sway in Yerevan’s northern Avan suburb, putting him in a position to earn Sarkisian and the ruling many votes there. Armenian opposition groups have accused him of bullying and attacking their local activists in the past.