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Armenia - The best footballing nation you've never heard of

Ask 50 people to name a top 50 of world football nations, and the chances are that Armenia won't get a mention.

You might be surprised to learn that Armenia are 41st in the FIFA world rankings, their highest placing to date. That's just 10 places behind the USA, one ahead of Wales, two spots in front of 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners Zambia and seven places ahead of Scotland.

Not too shabby for a nation that will celebrate just 20 years of independence on October 12 this year.

With a population of three million, Armenia is an Asian nation but, as with neighbours Turkey, there is a decidedly European feel to the former Soviet Union republic, which is looking to earn EU membership in the future. Located at 'the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe', Armenia is a landlocked and mountainous country, bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south.

There are a couple of notable English football connections with Armenia. Former Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield took charge of the Armenian national side for 10 games between 2006 and 2007 and former Swindon and Reading midfielder Tom Jones was a caretaker manager for six games in 2007.

An Armenia XI lost 2-0 to Serbia in the Cyprus Cup in Limassol on February 28. But a day later, with different personnel, they bounced back after conceding a fourth minute Kevin McKenna goal to win 3-1 against Canada, thanks to a goal in each half from Marcos Pizelli (pictured) and a last minute penalty from Aras Ozbiliz.

Just missed out

Armenia have so far failed to qualify for the European Championships or World Cup finals, but they only just missed out on qualification for Euro 2012, losing 2-1 against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in October in a do or die Group B finale, having thumped Macedonia 4-1 in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, four days earlier. That win was their third in a row in the group, after 3-0 and 4-0 away wins against Andorra and Slovakia in September.

They only lost one home game in their qualifying group, a 1-0 defeat against Ireland. Even Group B winners Russia failed to beat them in Yerevan, as Armenia held out for a 0-0 draw.

Pizelli is attracting some attention. The 27-year-old Brazilian-born striker, who can also play in an attacking midfield role, was the Armenian Premier League's top scorer in 2007, 2008 and 2010, and has recently signed for Russian Premier League side Kuban Krasnodar after a spell with Ukrainian Premier League outfit Metalurh Donetsk.

He has scored five goals in Armenia's last eight games, although he has not featured in all of them and is already third in Armenia's all time list of top scorers, with seven in 19 appearances. He only needs five more goals to break the record although he faces competition from fellow countryman Henrikh Mkhitaryan - Armenia's goalscorer in Dublin in October - who is one goal ahead of him, having made nine more appearances for his country.

Both players could overtake Arthur Petrosyan's 11 goals for his country, as Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Mkhitaryan has only just turned 23.

Star man

Arguably, Armenia's star man is 37-year-old Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky, who has 70 international caps and made over 100 appearances for Zenit St Petersburg.

He is considered to be Armenia's best goalkeeper of all time and holds the record for most number of penalty saves (14) in the Russian/USSR championships.

Captain Sargis Hovsepyan also stakes a claim for star player status, as the 39-year-old right back, who played more than 150 times for Zenit, is the record appearance maker for his nation with 126 caps.

Armenia are not expected to qualify for the 2014 World Cup as they are up against two of the world's top 10 FIFA ranked sides, Italy and Denmark, in their qualifying group, but they will be aiming to upstage the Czech Republic, ranked just 12 places above them, Bulgaria (FIFA ranking 88) and Malta (159) and will hope that a poor qualifying campaign for the Danes opens the door to Brazil for them.

Friendlies against Greece in Austria in May and Belarus in Yerevan in August will prove a good test of their capabilities, and they could find themselves in a heady position in their World Cup qualifying group in September if they can win their first two UEFA Group B games in Malta and Bulgaria, before they face a home clash with Italy in October.

By Mark Roach 

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