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Chess fills back pages but when whistle blows Armenians will stand proud

FOR CENTURIES they didn't have a country to call their own, the only expression of Armenian nationality coming from their ex-pat community who, like the Irish, worked hard for their dollar.

So international football is still a relatively big deal when it comes to Yerevan. They're not exactly star-struck -- after all, far bigger names than our lot, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres, have been here recently.

And this city is not quite gripped with football fever -- even this morning, tickets costing as little as €4 were still on sale even though Armenia are using the smaller of their two stadia. Tonight's match venue has a capacity of 16,000 and the place is unlikely to be full.

Even a glance at the local papers would suggest that football is more of an interest than an intense passion, with chunks of the sports pages here dedicated to boxing and chess (yes, chess), football not dominating the way it does in Ireland.

But there is still a bond between the four million or so people here and their national team. Once the words of Our Fatherland bound out from the speakers at the match stadium, that mood will change.

"Land of our fathers, free, independent, which has endured from age to age. Its sons and daughters now proclaim Armenia, sovereign and free," is their equivalent of sheena feena fall and those words, and the shirt, means a lot.

"It's a huge thing to have a national team, it has a special place in our hearts. Every Armenian loves football and the players feel the same so we play with a lot of pride when we wear that shirt," says Yura Movsisyan, the American-raised striker who will make his competitive debut for his adopted country tonight.

"International football is very, very important to this country. I haven't been part of it until now but I am really looking forward to facing big nations like Ireland.

"Armenians as a nation are very proud and patriotic, we have pride in our country, we protect our country with pride in every walk of life and if we can get a result in a football game, we know it will make a lot of people happy.

"People here have to work hard to get the money for those tickets as the prices are not cheap, but hopefully we can repay them with some success," added Movsisyan.


"I am always optimistic in every game I play so I hope we can do well here in this game. We're at home and I feel that in every home match you have to try and protect your home and at least avoid defeat. We will respect Ireland but we'll also respect ourselves, our ability, our team, our people and our country," added Movsisyan, who has been removed from the mood of that nation due to the fact that he's lived in the USA since he was 11 and has been based in Denmark for the last two years.

It is a beguiling place, full of the contradictions of a relatively new nation. One new shopping street in the city centre here is like something from any American city, all brownstone buildings and designer labels, all bling and bluster. But just around the corner are the sidestreets were old men play chess in the shade and babushkas sell mineral water from large tankers, 5c a glass.

There is no overwhelming feeling that Armenia can beat Ireland tomorrow.

They've had problems of their own as important defenders Aghvan Mkrtchyan and Levon Hayrapetyan are missing through injury, and midfielder Davit Manoyan missed training this week due to injury but should be fit.

They do have one name that Irish fans should know by now, new Shakhtar Donetsk striker Henrikh Mkhitaryan, already the cause of heartbreak to Irish footballers as his hat-trick helped Armenia demolish our U21 side 4-1 last year and hastened the exit of Don Givens after 10 years in the job.

"A draw would be a very good result for us," Armenia's young coach Vardan Minasyan (just 36, almost half the age of his counterpart tonight, Giovanni Trapattoni) said in his press conference before the game.

"We know all about the English Premier League here, everyone watches it and more than the leagues in Spain or Italy as the English League is more competitive.

"Ireland do not have just one dangerous player, they have many."