Longtime foes Turkey and Armenia battled on a football field, an event that had little significance in the world of sports but packed a punch in the arena of international politics.
|Turkey's players celebrate their goal against Armenia, but the game seemed a distraction to the main political event [AFP]
Armenian President Serge Sarkisian arrived in Turkey to attend the World Cup qualifier after a dinner hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Bursa, a former Ottoman imperial capital.
Gul attended an initial game in Armenia as a goodwill gesture last year, as the two countries began a round of "football diplomacy'' that led to the signing last weekend of an agreement to establish diplomatic ties and open their border within two months.
Although the match was overshadowed by the political posturing around it, Turkey's Halil Altintop scored with a header in the 16th minute, and Servet Cetin fired the ball into the Armenian net in the 28th minute to make the score 2-0.
After the first goal, Sarkisian shook Gul's hand to congratulate him.
Opposition in the stands
While the game was aiming to symbolise the warming of relations between the two countries, they may still have a way to go as the game began after Turkish fans booed and whistled as an announcer read out the Armenian lineup, and cheered the Turkish players.
However, some fans released white doves in a gesture of peace that drew applause in the stadium.
The announcer urged fans to show "traditional Turkish hospitality'' to the visiting team and not to jeer or whistle during the playing of the Armenian national anthem, although this directive was promptly ignored.
A bus taking Armenian journalists to the stadium was pelted with stones by Turkish fans, but there were no injuries or broken windows.
|Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, left, and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul [AFP]
In a sign of mutual admiration before the game, Gul and Sarkisian congratulated each other for taking bold steps toward a reconciliation that could have wider benefits for the Caucasus region, said two Turkish diplomats who were at the meeting.
"We're not writing history, we're making history,'' Gul was quoted as saying.
"The steps we took weren't easy at all, but we were forced to take these steps,'' Gul said, according to the officials.
They said Sarkisian explained his difficulties in trying to persuade some Armenian groups to support a deal with Turkey, but said supporters would outnumber opponents over time.
He stressed that his recent meetings with the powerful Armenian diaspora were a briefing process, and he was not "seeking permission'' from them to reconcile with Turkey, the Turkish officials said.
The agreement needs to be approved by the parliaments of both countries.
The deepest dispute is over history and has yet to be resolved: Armenia and many historians allege that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians early in the last century, a charge that Turkey denies.
The countries have agreed to set up a commission to study the issue, though they are unlikely to give much ground on their positions.
Police intensified security ahead of the match for fear of protests from Turkish nationalists who oppose reconciliation with the country's eastern neighbour.
Both teams had already been knocked out of the World Cup qualifying, so neither could deliver a killer blow to the other's athletic hopes.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned against "provocations that might come from people who desire to abuse the process between Turkey and Armenia.''
The agreement has strong support in the two countries' parliaments but faces stiff opposition from nationalists.
Turkey has said it would send the agreement to parliament next week. It was signed only after U.S. diplomats helped to resolve a last-minute hitch.
|The match had a strong police presence [AFP]
A day after the deal was signed on Saturday, Erdogan repeated a demand that Armenia withdraw from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia controls the enclave in Azerbaijan, which is inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians.
Turkey, in a show of solidarity with ally Azerbaijan, sealed its border with Armenia in response to the country's invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993.
Azerbaijan, a regional oil and gas power, has criticised the Turkish-Armenian deal, saying it aggravates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
PR work done
However there was a strong effort to present a unified front at the match with Turkish and Azerbaijani flag stickers pasted on dustbins, electricity poles and billboards surrounding the stadium in Bursa as street peddlers sold Turkish and Azerbaijani flags.
Virtually all flags inside the stadium were Turkish. One fan unfolded an Azeri flag and briefly held it up.
Fifa, world football's Zurich-based governing body, earlier contacted Turkey's Football Association and asked it to ensure that Azeri flags were not flown inside the stadium, in line with Fifa's stance against political interference and provocative acts.
"The governor was ordered to prevent fans from entering the stadium with Azeri flags,'' said Mahmut Ozgener, head of Turkey's football association.
"Fifa is very sensitive about political issues.''
Ozgener also said that football is instrumental in "opening a new era between Turkey and Armenia.''