Image credit: Gevorg Ghazaryan
There was no clearer sign of how much the small, mountainous Republic of Artsakh has embraced the CONIFA Sportsbet.io European Football Cup 2019 than at the opening ceremony. The whole of Stepanakert, the capital city, was alive with activity, the way to the stadium packed with families, officials, soldiers and visitors, and the grass verges overlooking the stadium thronging with Artsakhians eager to take part in the ceremony.
Inside the stadium there was already a party atmosphere, but the crowd was given an extra lease of life by the energetic warm-up act (even the government figures took part in the Mexican wave) and a dramatic performance by singer Vardan Bardalyan, accompanied by the ‘We Are Our Mountains’ dance ensemble.
But first, the formalities. All eight competing teams marched down the running track – here, it was obvious how proud the people of Artsakh are to welcome these athletes to the their countries – but the biggest cheers were predictably reserved for Western Armenia and Artsakh themselves.
President of the Republic of Artsakh, Bako Sahakyan, spoke of “an important event in the life of Artsakh”, praising the “rigorous and hard work” of the tournament organisers and volunteers.
“Football,” he said, “unites people, builds friendship [and] fosters humanitarian contact.” There was a sense of immense pride from the entire stadium when he expressed his hope that the Artsakhian athletes taking part could be a source of inspiration for the entire country.
And on a night on which the footballing world’s attention was fixed on the UEFA Champions’ League final in Madrid, CONIFA President Per-Anders Blind had a different perspective: “Tonight the capital of Europe is Stepanakert” – a sentiment echoed by CONIFA’s Europe President, Alberto Rischio.
Then the festivities truly began. The ceremony was a real celebration of Artsakhian culture and identity, and the country’s shared heritage with Armenia, characterised by a blend of modernity and tradition.
And of course, a celebration of football. The CONIFA official anthem was a crowd-pleaser, but even more so was the young boy performing keepy-uppies in the centre circle for the entire duration.
Then we had traditional Armenian and Artsakhian instruments, the young piano maestro Anahit Arushanyan, a tribute to French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour by Oxana Baburyan, and Armenia’s answer to the Gipsy Kings, Manolo and the Gipsy Gitanes, putting in a rousing performance of Bamboléo, all held together by trilingual banter between the three hosts, representing Artsakh, Armenia, and the huge diaspora around the world.
But the highlight was undoubtedly Sirusho, one of the most famous and popular Armenian-language singers – and the country’s representative at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. Her set, rapturously received by screams and cheers, blended Armenian religious and historical themes with contemporary modern pop.
Closing the ceremony was Artur Grigoryan, the legendary Armenian singer and pianist, joined by percussionist Erna in a composition written specially for the tournament, simply titled Artsakh. And as the fireworks began to unfold over the stadium, it was a fitting end to an incredible night.