KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Questions are inevitable about the suitability of Baku in Azerbaijan as one of the Euro 2020 venues after the country’s stand-off with neighbouring Armenia drove Arsenal to omit Henrikh Mkhitaryan from their squad for the Europa League Final there on May 29.
The midfielder is Armenian and fears for his safety because the two countries are locked in a 26-year-old dispute over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave which likes within Azeri territory.
Mkhitaryan said: “Having considered all current options, we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad to the Europa League final. It is the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often and I admit, it hurts a lot to miss it.”
Earlier this week Tahir Taghizadeh, Azerbaijan’s ambassador in London, insisted player and club would not meet with any problem.
‘Class A footballer’
He said: “I would say: ‘You are a professional athlete, you are a footballer, and a class A footballer’, so let’s make sure this is a class A event if our purpose is to make a great final.
“If our purpose is to play political games around it, that is something different, but I hope it is not, because you [Mkhitaryan] are being paid as a footballer, not as a politician, so let’s leave other issues aside.”
Arsenal, who will qualify for next season’s Champions League if they beat Chelsea to win their first European trophy since the Cup-winners’ Cup in 1994, have protested in vain to the European federation.
A statement said: “We have written to UEFA expressing our deep concerns about this situation.
“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. 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.”
It is not unusual for players to avoid travelling, in European competition, to countries where their nationality might risk creating difficulties. Mkhitaryan, for example, has missed early-round ties in Azerbaijan while with both Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.
This is the first time, however, that the problem has compromised a final.
UEFA pursues a diplomatic path, with a care for political disputes, among its 55 member nations when it comes to European Championship and age-group qualifying ties. For example, Russia and Ukraine are kept apart, as are Gibraltar and Spain, Kosovo and Serbia etc.
This means it is not as firm about unrestricted access as is world federation FIFA for the World Cup. FIFA insists that the governments of bidding host nations must guarantee right of entry during the tournament for players, officials and fans of every nation state.
Now that the issue has been raised on such a high-profile stage UEFA may come under pressure to review its own policy, particularly with Baku having been chosen to stage three group matches and one quarter-final during next year’s European Championship finals.
The 68,700- capacity Tofikh Bakhramov stadium – named after the Soviet Azeri linesman who played a crucial role in the 1966 World Cup Final – is by far the most distant of all the 12 Euro venues. It lies geographically within Asia and is 1,300 miles from the next-furthest-east host city, the Romanian capital of Bucharest.
Azerbaijan has also been a problematic venue for other events, such as the 2015 European Games, because of its restrictions on entry access for some western media outlets.