As speeches are delivered from the podium at Stepanakert’s newly-built handball stadium, children from nearby buildings have clustered along the edges of the sports complex, eagerly watching the event.
“More than 45,000 French-Armenian families participate in our annual phoneathon,” states Michel Pazoumian, vice chairman of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund’s French affiliate, in his keynote remarks. “Thanks to the support of our donors, we’re able to implement numerous projects in Artsakh and Armenia.”
“This stadium, too, is our gift to Stepanakert,” Pazoumian continues. “It was made possible by the financial support of my good friend, Gilles Etanget, who is also a great friend of the Armenian people.
The children on the other side of the fence stand on their tiptoes, anxiously waiting for the start of the day’s handball match. As he addresses the stadium’s avid spectators, Ara Vardanyan, executive director of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, expresses his heartfelt wish that the stadium will lead to many championships for Artsakh. Subsequently the playing field is ceded to the two competing teams.
Artsakh versus France. It’s an international match, but also a purely friendly game. As the French and Armenian athletes step foot on the field for the very first time, a child screams at the top of his lungs, “Go, Artsakh!”
Marat Shahnazarov doesn’t miss a second of the head-spinningly fast game. He himself has been a handball player since childhood, and was among those coached by Vardges Mkhitaryan, the lead player of Artsakh’s handball collective. Now, as he follows the France-Artsakh match, Marat falls in love with the sport all over again. An eighth-grader, he has had to put aside handball and start learning judo, as the school he goes to lacks a proper sports field. All that has changed today with the opening of the Stepanakert handball stadium, and Marat has already decided to switch back to handball.
“Handball is one of Artsakh’s most popular sports,” he says. “I want to become a professional handball player and represent my country in the world.” Another, younger, spectator standing next to him expresses the same wish. Once the match ends, the two boys will sign up for training. The team of junior handball players stands ready to take over the field from the adults. And that’s exactly what they do.
The France-Artsakh match ends with friendly handshakes, as the French team carries the trophy. But the kids are no longer interested in the outcome of the match, as they already begin to run around in the field, in pursuit of their dreams.