When English Premier League sides Chelsea and Arsenal meet in UEFA’s Europa League final on May 29, one of the latter’s big name players will not be with his team. Henrikh Mkhitaryan won’t be playing in the match – one of the most important games of the season for Arsenal.
The reason? The game is being played at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan. Mkhitaryan is an Armenian – and Armenia and Azerbaijan have an enduringly fractious relationship, dating back to the fall of the Russian empire in 1917. Currently, there are no diplomatic relations between them, principally because of a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory inside Azerbaijan’s current borders. Arsenal said, in a statement:
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.
Under normal circumstances, Mkhitaryan wouldn’t be allowed into Azerbaijan, though Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador has insisted that he is welcome (and would be safe) providing he confines himself simply to playing football. The Armenian international and his club seemingly think otherwise.
We’ve been here before – earlier in the season Mkhitaryan didn’t travel to play against Qarabag, an Azerbaijani team, in a previous round of the Europa League. Furthermore, we know that clubs and national associations are often mindful of the consequences that international conflicts between countries can have on football.
Already this year we have seen issues with Qatar qualifying to play in the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, a country with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations. Matches involving Israel or Israeli players frequently prove difficult – for instance, in 2006, Yossi Benayoun and Yaniv Katan were left out of a traininng trip to Dubai by their club West Ham. There have been issues in the UK, too, including when Argentinian Osvaldo Ardiles needed to move on loan from Tottenham Hotspur to Paris Saint Germain following the outbreak of the Falklands War in May 1982.
Level playing field?
UEFA itself is not blind to the sometimes highly charged, political nature of the sport. Indeed, during draws for both international and club matches, European football’s governing body keeps some countries apart given the state of relations between them. As such, Azerbaijani and Armenian teams don’t face one another in competition nor do, for example, Ukraine and Russia.
Yet there’s something different about Mkhitaryan’s case, not least because he can hardly be characterised as a mainstay of the Arsenal team following his big money move from Manchester United early in 2018. Rather, UEFA’s selection of Baku to host a game of this nature has been controversial from the outset, most recently because of the unusually small number of tickets – 6,000 per team – allocated to Arsenal and Chelsea. This is despite the city’s National Stadium having a capacity of 68,000.
One apparent reason for this is that Baku’s airport is unable to handle large volumes of people, an explanation that has provoked derision from a mass of London fans keen to attend the game. It doesn’t help that Azerbaijan is not easy to get to from Britain – it’s a 6,000 mile round trip that is costly and time-consuming to undertake. Even before Mkhitaryan’s withdrawal from the match, many had been calling for it to be played elsewhere.
Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, have long been highlighting the actions of government in Baku. Azerbaijan is frequently accused of denying press freedoms, violating human rights, and using sport as a means through which to wash the country’s tarnished image and reputation. The country is also scandal riven, most notably the Laundromat money laundering scam which ultimately engulfed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Winds of change
All of which begs the question as to why UEFA took its decision in 2017 to award Baku the hosting rights to the 2019 Europa League final. In simple terms, over the past decade, the winds of egalitarianism have been blowing through the corridors of the governing body’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. Former president Michel Platini was elected on a manifesto that included awarding hosting rights to countries beyond Western Europe.
In many ways, the current president, Aleksander Čeferin, is part of Platini’s legacy: a Slovenian lawyer, he is supposedly committed to ensuring that European football is not controlled by a small number of powerful nations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was on his watch that the Azerbaijani capital won the race to stage this season’s Europa League final (even though, just three weeks earlier, the Laundromat scandal had just broken).
At the time, UEFA likely had an eye on the financial benefits of playing matches in a wealthy oil and gas-endowed nation that has been spending big on sport. Not only does Baku have newly built infrastructure capable of successfully delivering mega events, it also has an affluent middle class willing to spend on them. It’s also worth remembering that, in recent years, UEFA has benefited from a lucrative sponsorship deal with SOCAR – the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic.
It seems ironic that Azerbaijan’s growing international prominence and its massive programme of spending on sport are embodied in the “Baku Process” – an initiative launched by the country in 2008 with a mission to promote international understanding, dialogue and respect. Whether the country likes it or not, Mkhitaryan, two English clubs and a European football match are now shining a spotlight on the differences between the country’s rhetoric and its reality.