Chelsea vs Arsenal: The Henrikh Mkhitaryan situation is a disgrace entirely of Uefa's own making

Mkhitaryan's situation is a culmination of the many problems with staging the Europa League final in such a venue

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 21 May 2019 15:27
Unai Emery praises Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Arsenal reach Europa League final

If the basic inability of fans to just get to Baku for a showpiece European final should have caused reconsideration of the whole event, the fact Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be there because of the political context should be a tipping point.

It is a culmination of so many problems with staging the Europa League final in such a venue - geographically remote, not sufficiently equipped and politically questionable.

Baku is not fit for purpose in almost any sense. It should be stripped of its games in Euro 2020 next season. It should really be stripped of the 2019 Europa League final, except so many involved seem to accept it is already too late for that.

Mkhitaryan announced his decision in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, citing the ongoing and longstanding conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

He said that he’d taken the “tough decision” after “having considered all the current options”.

If only Uefa had done the same with this match, something that Arsenal have written to the governing body to express their “deep concerns about this situation”. There is a fair school of thought that Arsenal themselves should refuse to play, given they would have a strong moral argument. The very choice of venue has weakened their team, and denied one of their players attending what he himself describes as "the kind of game that doesn't come along very often... it hurts". That would still be to put too much of an unfair burden on the club for this fiasco, when the burden should be on Uefa.

It greatly appears like the governing body didn’t consider any of the options or elements around this event deeply enough at all.

Almost every aspect of it - bar the size of the stadium - is problematic. Except the size of the stadium could now inadvertently become an issue in itself, because of the potential image of so many empty seats. Tickets are hugely expensive for the local population, and we could have the shambles of Chelsea and Arsenal not using their already small allocations.

The airport infrastructure cannot cope with more than 15,000 fans travelling, despite so few options to directly get there, and as of writing that could mean only 5,000 from the clubs’ support travelling. That is less than 50% of the clubs’ allocation.

There was already the concern this final is alleged to have been used as a propaganda tool for president Ilham Aliyev - voted in for a fourth successive term last year in elections Human Rights Watch say lacked competition and “took place in a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms”, and having presided over an “appalling” human rights record.

Mkhitaryan’s feeling that he cannot travel takes so much of this to a head.

Mkhitaryan will not be part of Arsenal's European final

It was lamentable that the mere venue selected for a final meant so many fans could not travel to such a special event.

It is a disgrace that a player can’t.

For that concern to have been just sitting there, where individuals from certain countries couldn’t travel, should have immediately precluded a country as a potential venue in the first place. Uefa’s odd statement about “spreading the game” just doesn’t not wash in this case. Not if the game can go to these countries, but some of the game's players cannot. That in itself is almost contradictory logic.

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This problem is also unprecedented in modern football, even as the game gets increasingly enmeshed in and indistinguishable from geo-politics.

It should have already caused Uefa to deeply consider the criteria for how they host these events.

It should now bring even more introspection.

Baku should have been stripped of this final. It should now definitely be stripped of its 2020 games.

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