The football part of the match between Turkey and Armenia is totally uninteresting: both countries have already failed to qualify for the world championships in South Africa. But still, the tension is rising in Bursa, the city not too far from Istanbul where the match will be played tonight.
The Armenian President Sarkisyan will come to watch, as Turkish President Gül did last September when the first qualifying match between the two countries was played in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. The term for it is ‘football diplomacy’, and Sarkisyan would only come to Bursa if there was an agreement on restoring the official ties between the two countries. A few days ago, a deal was signed in Zürich, and even though many issues between the countries need to be resolved, Sarkisyan kept his word and booked a ticket to Bursa.
It seems there will be a tense atmosphere in the stadium tonight. Not everybody in Turkey welcomes the deal, because Armenia is still occupying Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan where many Armenians live. Turkey closed its border with Armenia over that issue in 1993, since Turks and Azeris are brother nations with the same language and cultural and religious background. The deal with Armenia, many people say, is a betrayal of Azerbaijan.
So it was not so wise, I’d say, for the authorities in Bursa to forbid people to take Azerbaijani flags to the match: that triggered people’s fanaticism. One person decided to place a fast-tracked order for 5000 Azeri flags to challenge the prohibition, and someone else decided to take the flag ban to court. The authorities reacted by lifting the ban, but of course by now people’s minds are made up: I predict there will be a lot of blue-red-green Azeri flags in the stadium. Also because Bursa fans (since Turkey is a big country, it will mainly be local fans from Bursa in the stadium) are known for their nationalist stance. They showed that again recently when their team played against Diyarbakirspor, a team from the Kurdish southeast of the country, by chanting nationalist slogans and waving nationalist banners, protesting the government initiative to solve the Kurdish issue by democratic means.
There will be 2000 police on duty around the stadium tonight. Tight security for Sarkisyan, although it was decided he will not be sitting behind bullet-proof glass. Many Turkish flags, many Azeri flags, maybe here and there an Armenian flag. Slogans, banners. But please, no violence. Has there ever been more excitement about a match that is, on the sports level, so totally unimportant?