Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry has indicated that Arsenal soccer star Henrikh Mkhitaryan can play in the Europa League final in Baku later this month, despite long-standing tensions between Azerbaijan and his native Armenia.
When asked about Mkhitaryan, ministry spokeswoman Leyla Abdullayeva told AP on May 10 that "many major sports events have been hosted in Azerbaijan, and Armenian athletes have taken part in them. Sports and politics are separate."
Mkhitaryan’s Arsenal squad will face Chelsea on May 29 in the Azerbaijani capital for the UEFA Europa League championship in an all-English final.
The match at Baku’s 68,700-seat Olympic Stadium will mark the first time a European club competition final will be held in Azerbaijan.
Arsenal has said it is seeking guarantees from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) that Mkhitaryan can travel there for the match. The Armenian star did not travel with Arsenal for a group-stage game in Azerbaijan earlier this season.
UEFA on May 10 said it had received assurances from Azerbaijan's soccer governing body, although it did not mention a guarantee from the Azerbaijan government.
"Assurances were sought on this matter by UEFA and Arsenal FC, with the Azerbaijan Football Association confirming that there would be no problem for the player in question to enter and stay in Azerbaijan and that all necessary security measures would be in place," UEFA said in an e-mail comment.
Tensions have long been high between the former Soviet republics over Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh area.
The region, which is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Since 1994, when a cease-fire agreement was reached, it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Baku says include troops supplied by Armenia.
No country has recognized it as an independent state.