Political Act Represented as Mere Football Incident on Live Television

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

The 2016 European qualifier between Armenia and Portugal in Yerevan on June 13 drew a large audience.

Nearly everyone in Armenia was watching the match, which was broadcast on state television, and the reason was not only the love and hope of victory for the Armenian team, but also Portuguese forward Cristiano Rinaldo’s presence. Whether you like him or not, he’s a star. And it’s good to follow and, as much as possible, be close to stars.

And when at the end of the first half (at the 43rd minute), invading the pitch was a young man, both TV viewers and many of those at the stadium assumed that he was simply a fan (whether it was a fan of Ronaldo or the Armenian team, it doesn’t matter). A banner in his hands and swooping into the field, the young man fast approached Ronaldo. A few minutes later, the police officers pursuing him captured him and removed him from the pitch. 

Public TV sports commentator, veteran Slava Sargsyan live on air described the incident as an emotional outburst by a Ronaldo fan that introduced vivacity to the match.

In fact, the pitch invader was imprisoned political activist Shant Harutyunyan‘s son Shahen, for whom the priority was not football but the fate of his father. The banner in his hands read: “Freedom for Shant Harutyunyan and all political prisoners in Armenia”.

About this TV viewers and spectators were informed very quickly through social media or by carefully scrutinizing the young man’s T-shirt, printed on which was the portrait of his father who has declared a hunger strike while in prison.

If the only source of information for those watching the match live on television would’ve been Public Television of Armenia (say, in the absence of internet or public contact), it would seem that the incident was a move by a football zealot and not a clear political act.

In any case, the commentator added nothing to his remarks in the second half of the match, leaving an audience of a million confused. After all, the images were shown and those images were given incorrect commentary, but, according to the sportscaster, neither was the mistake worth correcting nor the incident worthy of clarification.

Instead, we Armenians repeatedly heard that in order to beat Portugal, we have to “scare” them, while we have to “give credit” to our team. Though the calls for doom and giving credit seemed descriptive and lofty, it was unclear how this was to be done. 

To give credit you (perhaps) need to be informed before you begin. If you don’t know what the talk is about, how will you give credit?

Shahen Harutyunyan’s brief pitch invasion very quickly gained context in the media and on social media (for example, see here). Searches for Armenia increased sharply and surpassed even the amount of searches during this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Ronaldo’s surname and Shahen Harutyunyan’s move, of course, should be given credit for directing interest to Armenia

Later, Shahen Harutyunyan told the local press his decision to enter the field was due to Ronaldo. “One of the world’s best football players was on the field and the world’s attention was on him. I used the occasion once again to show the world that there are political prisoners in Armenia and we demand they be set free.”

Understandably, it’s hard for a sports commentator to comment on unforeseen events and provide complete information on unwelcome incidents. Very often this is impossible in real time, but in this case the information gap could’ve been filled during half-time. 

Editor-in-chief of the sports division of the Public TV of Armenia, sports commentator Slava Sargsyan finds that during the game nothing should distract the commentator’s attention.

It is with this principle and approach that I have been giving live [running] commentary on various sporting events for around 43 years now. I could only assume the aim of the young man who entered the field during the Armenia-Portugal match, since desperate fans, as a rule, try to enter the field to be beside or see up close their favorite player for a few seconds.

“Even more so when we’re talking about the world’s greatest football player and especially since a similar incident occurred at the warm-up before the the match. But I couldn’t see his face or the poster in his hands for one simple reason: it simply wasn’t visible, and I won’t even talk about recognition. It would’ve been possible to announce it only if there was information in advance. 

“Football should never be mixed with politics.

“It’s hard to imagine any political commentator in the world who, speaking on, for example, the Ukrainian crisis or the Catalan independence movement also discussing or turning his attention in real time to the details of the Djokovic-Nadal [tennis] match or Dynamo Kyiv–Shakhtar [Donetsk] match.”

Giving commentary on various sporting events since the Soviet years, Sargsyan’s advice not to mix football with politics is perfect. And when the president of Armenia a few years ago announced the benefit of “Football Diplomacy,” people in Armenia, it seems, saw nothing terrible in that mix. 

And now, for example, following the European Games in Baku, they don’t see when politics completely invades sports — with its entire two-sided propagandist arsenal. 

Sport has long been politicized. And it has been used politically by both states and individuals. When the need arises, of course.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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