A renewed investment in youth football may pay dividends for Armenia in the coming years.
By Khachik Chakhoyan
The 2004 Armenian season may have ended in a predictable enough triumph for FC Pyunik, but the emergence of a new generation of young players was reason for all football supporters in the former Soviet Republic to celebrate.
Never regarded as the strongest of leagues, there is hope now with a new, open-minded approach that the Armenian first division can rise in stature over the coming years and that some of the country's finest players may soon grace some of the best foreign teams.
With Armenian sides successfully reaching the second stages of the 2003/04 UEFA European Under-17 Championship and 2004/05 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, the nation's youth teams have proved that they can compete with the best in Europe, and have justified Armenia's focus on nurturing young talent.
From the first day that he took charge, president Ruben Hayrapetyan was adamant about the direction the Armenian Football Federation (AFF) needed to take. "Only patient work with the youngsters can give Armenian football a bright future," he said. "If we want a strong national team in a few years, we have to start the work with the young footballers now."
Much of that good work seemed to have come to fruition in the form of one man - teenage Pyunik striker Edgar Manucharyan, who was named Armenian Player of the Year for 2004. He topped the goalscoring charts with 21 goals in 28 games, and was superb for the youth and full national teams.
When Manucharyan travelled to AFC Ajax for trials in December, it seemed that a star might be about to be born. However, fate had different ideas. Manucharyan impressed in training only to break his foot only 14 minutes after taking the field as a substitute in a friendly game against FC Barcelona.
None the less, Manucharyan did enough during his trial spell to show why Armenian football experts rate him so highly. He remains in Amsterdam, recovering from his injury with Ajax's doctors and hoping to sign a permanent deal with the Eredivisie side once he is back on his feet.
Moreover, young Armenian players can now see more than one example of local players making successful moves abroad, with 18-year-old Pyunik goalkeeper Apoula Edima Edel Bete having signed for French Ligue 1 side FC Girondins de Bordeaux and midfield team-mate Carl Lombe hoping to join him.
Meanwhile, Manucharyan's Pyunik strike-partner, Galust Petrosyan, has moved to Moldova and signed a three-year contract with CSF Zimbru Chisinau, and David Grigoryan, Karen Aleksanyan, Agvan Mkrtchyan and Alexander Tadevosyan are all hopeful of finding foreign clubs before the transfer window closes.
The arrival of foreign players in the Armenian league may have helped these players to develop. In the last two years, over 20 foreigners have been to Armenia on trial - most of them at Pyunik - and some, like Africans Edel Bete, Lombe and Balep Ba Ndoumbuk, have even taken Armenian citizenship.
However, Armenians know that they can only import so many players. Real developments must come from within, and that is why, with the help of UEFA development funding, the AFF have organised an increasing number of youth tournaments in recent years.
At the last count, there were 2,036 young players registered in Armenia. If eleven or more of them can make the grade in the next decade, a young nation's footballing future could be assured.