Arsenal announced on Tuesday that star midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be joining the club in Baku, Azerbaijan for the Europa League final against Chelsea due to safety concerns, depriving the London club one of its best players for what seem to be entirely avoidable reasons.
Mkhitaryan is from Armenia, Azerbaijan’s neighbor with which it has a strained relationship. Due to the longstanding conflicts between the countries, Arsenal feel like Mkhitaryan would not be safe venturing to Baku for the final. This despite UEFA and the Azerbaijani soccer authorities insisting as recently as last weekend that they could guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety.
Tahir Taghizadeh, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United Kingdom, spoke to Sky News this week on the matter, saying that the player would be safe—as long as he stuck to sports while in the country. However, “if you want to play the issue,” Taghizadeh added, “then that’s a different story.” Not exactly the most reassuring comments.
Arsenal’s statement on the matter is measured, but clearly places the blame on UEFA while also lamenting that one of their key players will not be available in Baku:
We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.
We have written to Uefa expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan dates back both countries’ independence from the fallen Russian Empire in 1918. The countries fought two wars against each other during the 20th century, and have not had formal relationships in almost 100 years.
Armenians are, according to European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the most vulnerable group in Azerbaijan, due to widespread racist propaganda painting Armenians as Azerbaijan’s biggest enemies. As cited in a ECRI report in 2016, one 2012 incident perfectly encapsulates the conflict: that year, the Azerbaijan government “pardoned, released and promoted Ramil Safarov, who had been sentenced in Budapest to life imprisonment for the murder of an Armenian army officer.”
The acrimony between the two countries is so pronounced that the Azerbaijani government reportedly banned British fans whose last names end in -ian and -yan (common Armenian naming conventions), even if they are not Armenian themselves.
It seems wild that UEFA would even choose Baku as the host site for the final in the first place with these kinds of geopolitical conflicts primed to emerge. And that’s before getting into the ticketing and travel debacle that has marred what should’ve been a great event. What’s perhaps most ridiculous about this specific situation is how eminently foreseeable it was. Arsenal already played in Baku in the group stage, facing off against Qarabağ FK on October 4. These same security concerns kept Mkhitaryan away from Baku then. In the months since, one could have quite reasonably expected UEFA to come up with a plan in case Arsenal—one of the big favorites in the competition—made the final.
This isn’t just a big blow for Mkhitaryan, who will miss out on a European final a year after Arsenal were knocked out of the Europa League in the semifinals. It’s also a blow for anyone who hoped to see the best possible match with Arsenal and Chelsea at full strength. The 30-year-old was a key part of Arsenal’s side this season, finishing with 9 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. Though he did not score in the Europa League, he did have three assists in the competition, including one in the decisive 4-2 away win against Valencia in the semis.
Now, Mkhitaryan will be forced to watch his team attempt to win the final, and a crucial Champions League spot, without him, barred from participating simply due to his country of birth and UEFA’s casually callous lack of foresight—very good reasons for conscientious fans to ignore the actual final entirely.