Robert Kazandjian talks about the significance of the Armenian footballer
My dad is now an Arsenal fan. Having obsessively followed Manchester United for over half a century, repping the reds in Cairo, Nicosia, Beirut and London, seamlessly passing on the art of Red Devil worship to me, he now appears to have switched allegiances like Owen Jones in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s confirmed electability.
The trigger for my old man’s turncoat twist is quite simple; Jose Mourinho, United’s manager, used an out-of-favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan as a makeweight to sweeten the deal with Arsenal for the indefatigable Alexis Sanchez. From the cold, analytical perspective of a football pundit, this move made a lot of sense. For an Armenian United fan, struggling to keep afloat on our cold, unfriendly island and finding sanctuary in the broad church of football, the casting out of one of our own was a betrayal, the shattering of a wonderful dream.
When our Red Devils signed Armenia’s captain and all-time leading goalscorer, Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the summer of 2016, to say my dad and I were ecstatic would not do justice to the overwhelming sense of happiness and pride we felt. While this may sound like nationalistic bombast to some, the reality is Armenians as a race of people came hideously close to being wiped off the face of the earth. But this is not a piece about our bloody history and the subsequent denial of fact. The genocide of 1915 failed. We survived. We ultimately thrived again. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a symbol of all of that.
Our imaginations were captured when we saw Henrikh gracefully torment the Tottenham defence while playing for Borussia Dortmund in a Europa League game. My dad and I drifted away to a fantasy world where this balletic playmaker wore the colours of the team we love, picking apart Premier League opposition with pinpoint passes and surging runs. And that fantasy melted into a gloriously unbelievable reality.
So when Henrikh became the first Armenian to score a goal in Premier League history, against Tottenham at the Theatre of Dreams, racing on to a through-ball then taking a touch to steady himself before rifling a shot past the goalkeeper into the roof of the net, we shed tears together. When United fans in the stadium began to sing, “Whoah, Mkhitaryan! Henrikh Mkhitaryan! He’s our midfield Armenian,” the idea that being Armenian is something obscure and unknown, requiring explanations and maps, dissolved in the joyful noise.
A couple of matches later, when our midfield Armenian came off the bench to score a magical scorpion kick against Sunderland, which he later described as the greatest goal he’s ever scored, my dad saw it fit to finally declare that Armenians invented football atop Holy Mount Ararat. Claiming we invented a plethora of probable and improbable things is a well known Armenian trait, from backgammon to Christianity to Lahmajun to strong noses; my old man added the beautiful game to that ever-growing list. I often wonder if this is a trait of dispossessed peoples everywhere, a self-comforting act of defiance that spits in the face of those who didn’t/don’t want us to exist. The British conjured up concentration camps and powerful white men manufactured racism but their descendants stay quietly humble about these truths.
Our midfield Armenian’s Manchester sojourn holds a dual poignancy in my household. For not only have we been able to enjoy a reflection of ourselves in United red but Henrikh’s on-pitch adventures have temporarily brightened my dad’s clouded mind. My old man’s dementia progresses insidiously. Recent memories escape him the way warmth escapes a home through an open window. Within an hour or two he struggles to recall details from even the most unbelievably thrilling game of football, that is unless Henrikh takes the field. With a focal point to follow, my dad enjoys a brilliant lucidity and is able to recall the moments in which our midfield Armenian is involved. The beaming, proud expression that softens his strong features mirror that of the father who never missed one of my own mud-spattered matches. He quickly memorised Henrikh’s squad number and has gone on to argue that there has been a sharp upward curve in Premier League players wearing the number twenty-two, as tribute to his excellence. I imagine him proposing the same theory about Henrikh’s new squad number at Arsenal, seven, and can’t help laughing at the admirable ridiculousness.
I can’t begrudge my dad’s abandonment of the team we love. Perhaps it’s a natural response to the fierce pride we feel in having the skill of an Armenian recognised on a monumental platform. As much as I try to shift way from the idea, the need for recognition does form a significant part of Armenian identity. Perhaps as dementia eats away at my dad’s essence and his notion of self slowly unravels, his Armenian-ness takes on greater importance. That, he will never forget. Or maybe the focal point that Henrikh offers lets my dad continue to enjoy the simple act of watching football on the television, while so many of the other things he once loved doing degrade into the skeleton of faded memories. What I am certain of is this, when the inevitable happens and our midfield Armenian reignites the brilliance he is undoubtedly capable of, but in the red of an Arsenal shirt, I will find it hard to suppress both a cheer and a tear.
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Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian
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