With Arsenal and Chelsea confirmed as Europa League finalists after their victories over Valencia and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively, the realities of the final in Baku have come into clearer focus.
Not only are fans contending with long flights covering almost 3,000 miles with potentially arduous stopovers and connections in airports from Istanbul to Kiev – there are no direct scheduled flights available between London and Baku on the week of the final – they are also facing spiralling costs for tickets and transport, however they choose to travel.
The fastest route by car passes through the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, currently an active warzone, while a train journey from London to Baku would include around 11 changes and take two days at least. On top of that Uefa have allocated Arsenal and Chelsea around 6,000 tickets each, with 37,500 going on general sale and the rest going to assorted bureaucrats, commercial partners and corporate interests.
Then there’s the fact that Azerbaijan is ranked 166th out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Human Rights Watch describe their human rights record as “appalling”, while Football Supporters Europe have flagged the “repressive atmosphere” for football fans and the government’s extremely poor record on LGBT rights.
On top of all that, it has now been announced that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will miss the game. Arsenal had previously said that he would not travel if they could not get acceptable guarantees over his safety.
Why are there safety fears over Mkhitaryan in Baku?
Born in Yerevan, just over 400 miles away from Baku, Mkhitaryan is by far and away the most famous footballer in Armenia. He has won the Armenian Footballer of the Year Award a record eight times, having started his career in his home country with FC Pyunik.
International relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are extremely poor. An ethnic and territorial conflict known as the Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out between the two neighbouring states – both former Soviet republics – in the late eighties and went on until 1994. Though there was a ceasefire, a peace treaty has not been forthcoming and there have been sporadic border skirmishes between the two countries ever since.
With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ongoing, Armenia and Azerbaijan have no official diplomatic relations. Armenian citizens and those of Armenian descent are routinely denied entry to Azerbaijan, though the Azerbaijani government has previously granted exceptions for sporting events.
Fiery nationalist rhetoric on both sides since the Nagorno-Karabakh War has fuelled ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. That has provoked fears over Mkhitaryan’s safety which Uefa and the Azerbaijani authorities have failed to dispel.
Mkhitaryan has sat out trips to Azerbaijan before with both Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. Earlier this season, at the Europa League group stage, he was left at home as Arsenal ran out 3-0 winners against Azerbaijani champions Qarabag in Baku.
What have Arsenal said about the situation?
After Arsenal’s place in the final was confirmed, a club spokesperson made the following statement on the Mkhitaryan situation:
“The safety and security of all of our players is of paramount importance. We are seeking guarantees from Uefa that it will be safe for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to travel to Baku for the Europa League final, which both Arsenal and Micki require for him to be included within our squad.
“Acceptable guarantees have not been received yet, and we hope that Uefa will be able to supply these promptly. We are of course hugely concerned that the location of the final could lead to Micki not being able to play in a European final.”
Now, the club has followed up with a statement confirming that Mkhitaryan will not take part in the game. “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,” read a statement on the club’s official website.
“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.
“We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.”
What has been the response?
Among fans and journalists, the response towards Uefa has been almost universally scathing. “Uefa have apparently made the calculation that Mkhitaryan’s absence was worth the political hit of still staging the Europa League final in Azerbaijan,” tweeted journalist Musa Okwonga. “They wouldn’t have got away with this if it was the Champions League and the player was Messi.”
Arsenal fan blogger Arseblog tweeted: “This is genuinely disgraceful. I hope there’s a further statement to come from Arsenal about the fact this decision has had to be made, because it needs to be condemned in the strongest terms possible. When you look at the kind of ‘reassurances’ being provided, you can understand why nobody was convinced of his safety/security.”
While the Azerbaijani FA have claimed that they provided “all necessary guarantees”, many have noted the loaded language used by Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizadeh, when he told Sky Sports: “My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku, you are safe there, [but] if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story.”
Meanwhile, Uefa have issued a statement of their own which reads: “Working alongside Arsenal FC, Uefa sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country. As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club.
“While the club acknowledges the efforts that Uefa and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”