Henrikh Mkhitaryan absence from showpiece final shames UEFA - Arsenal and Chelsea should boycott the Europa League final
Thursday, 23 May, 2019, 18:40
Nine days before their season-defining Europa League final clash with rivals Chelsea in Baku, Arsenal's preparations suffered a not insignificant setback. "We're very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our #UELfinal against Chelsea," tweeted Arsenal. On any other day this could be a fairly mundane update on a player cruelly struck down by injury right on the cusp of what would be one of the biggest games of his career.
But this is no case of misfortune or any sort of recklessness on behalf of the player in question. Rather a globally supported soccer giant has had to withdraw an international superstar from a major European showpiece final for no other reason than where he was born. The Mkhitaryan case is a major embarrassment for UEFA and raises huge questions over its decision to stage the game in Baku. Forget the travel impracticalities of hosting a major European final in the far reaches of Azerbaijan that has made it virtually impossible -- both financially and logistically -- for the majority of both sets of supporters to reach. Even forget the measly allocation of just 6,000 tickets for each club's fans in a stadium that holds 69,870. Simply consider that UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe and upholder of its values, has chosen to host a showpiece final in a country where people of a certain nationality are deemed unsafe and are usually not permitted entry. Armenia -- where Mkhitaryan is from -- and Azerbaijan have a century-long conflict stemming from the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 and there were fears the Arsenal midfielder would not be safe in Baku. That leaves one team technically handicapped by the forced withdrawal of a key player because of a non-footballing decision taken by the organisation which is supposed to promote the sport and uphold its values.
UEFA's core principle on their RESPECT social responsibility campaign, which positively promotes inclusion, diversity and accessibility in football is: "Everyone has the right to enjoy football, no matter who you are, where you're from or how you play." Hopefully that's a message that comforts Mkhitaryan and other Armenians around the world as the international captain sits at home watching on TV on Wednesday May 29. How can this not go against every principle of sport and competition? And if Arsenal lose the game the question will always be asked -- what would have happened if Mkhitaryan had played? It also risks making UEFA's future equality and anti-discrimination campaigns sound pretty hollow when they continue to back a game in a country where such exclusion and conflict is so prominent? A penny for the thoughts of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich as well given all the work he's done to fight anti-Semitism. The Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) said it was disappointed by Arsenal's "unwarranted decision." "Whilst we recognize the right to make a personal decision not to travel, we would like to reiterate that as the host country Azerbaijan has provided all the necessary guarantees required by UEFA to ensure the personal safety of Mr Mkhitaryan," said an AFFA spokesperson. "There is no reason whatsoever to put in question the seriousness of these guarantees provided by Azerbaijan. Over the past decade a large number of Armenian athletes have taken part in various international sports events in Azerbaijan without any issues." UEFA argue they have made every effort to support the participation of Mkhitaryan. "Working alongside Arsenal FC, UEFA sought and received assurances regarding the player's safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country," said European football's governing body in a statement. "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."
In essence, if Arsenal and Mkhitaryan aren't brave enough to roll the dice with the safety of their players and staff, then that's their problem. But if UEFA continue to serve their own interests at the expense of fans and players, do Arsenal and Chelsea need to do more in making the case for the game to be moved to preserve the integrity of the competition -- and human decency? Perhaps even to boycott the game? That would be a particularly tough decision for Arsenal to make, given the financial implications of any boycott as the Europa League offers the club it's last chance to qualify for the Champions League. There are stadiums all over Europe which can hold a major game at short notice -- namely Wembley Stadium and New White Hart Lane in London, where both finalists are from. Yes, this would represent a drastic and unprecedented move, but there has never been an occasion in the modern game where such restriction was forced upon a player, and what an example of togetherness and respect for all nationalities and beliefs it would be for two London rivals to set. But surely some things in sport are more important than winning, losing, financial reward or financial penalties. This is a moment that could etch both proud, illustrious clubs in the history books of peace -- which is far greater good than a tainted Europa League trophy.