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Arsenal Star's Absence From Europa League Final Has Soccer Aficionados Asking, 'Why Baku?'

Arsenal's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be a notable absence from this year's Europa League final in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Arsenal's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be a notable absence from this year's Europa League final in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

Not even a tongue-in-cheek offer of a warplane escort could get Armenian soccer star Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Azerbaijan for Arsenal's Europa League championship match against Chelsea.

"What more could we do?" Azerbaijan's exasperated sports minister, Azad Rahimov, asked on CNN. "We can send a private jet for him -- accompanied by two F16 Fighting Falcons...a navy [ship]? I don't know what more we could do."

Despite promises from senior officials in Baku, Azerbaijan's ambassador to London, and European soccer's governing body, UEFA, the 30-year-old midfielder announced last week that he "had to take the tough decision" not to travel with Arsenal for the trip.

"It's the kind of game that doesn't come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it," he wrote in a tweet on May 21.

Transcaucasus neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan remain locked in a dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized by Armenian troops after years of bloody fighting in the early 1990s that displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians in the region.

Border skirmishes take several lives a year, mostly among soldiers stationed at the countries' shared 1,000-kilometer border, and frustrations routinely hamper cooperation in areas like entertainment, culture, and sport.

But many Armenians have competed in Azerbaijan before, including during the 2015 European Games, when a team of 25 Armenian athletes participated.

The Armenians were lustily booed by the heavily Azerbaijani crowds, maybe most notably when Armenian Greco-Roman wrestler Mihran Harutyunyan won a silver medal. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev tried to salvage the situation by personally draping the medal around Harutyunyan's neck and asking the crowd to show respect.

Playing Political Games?

The Yerevan-born Mkhitaryan's snub is nothing new. The May 29 Europa League final in the 69,000-seat Baku Olympic Stadium marks the third time -- and second in the past year -- that he has refused to play in the Azerbaijani capital.

Some have accused Mkhitaryan of playing political games in an effort to sully Azerbaijan.

"Do I think he is making a political statement? I am afraid so," said Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United Kingdom Tahir Tagizadeh.

Baku's Olympic Stadium -- the venue for this year's controversial Europa League final.
Baku's Olympic Stadium -- the venue for this year's controversial Europa League final.

But others suggest that Mkhitaryan -- considered along with Soviet-era legends Nikita Simonyan and Khoren Hovhannisyan to be among the greatest Armenian players of all time -- shouldn't have to take any risk, or even feel uncomfortable, to play a game of soccer.

"It's outrageous -- traveling to Azerbaijan, like traveling to any authoritarian country, in the end...comes down to a personal decision," said Ronan Evain, CEO of the Hamburg-based Football Supporters of Europe organization, an association of booster groups.

"The problem is that fans and players and people who have to go [to Baku] to do their job are put in an impossible situation where they have to [decide] between enjoying their team or doing their job on the one side, and then ethical principles or security concerns [on the other]," Evain said. "That's the problem of a game being played in a country which has the human rights record that Azerbaijan has."

Evain, whose organization unites thousands of fan groups, unions, and other football-related associations as members, said they were concerned as soon as the game in Baku was announced.

"We had concerns from day one related to the human rights situation, to the airport capacity, and to the general policing style of the Azerbaijani authorities," he said.

Fans Stay Home

Thousands of fans from both Chelsea and Arsenal have decided not to fly to Baku due to the high costs and difficulty of flying and staying there. Both teams said they failed to sell out their allotment of 6,000 seats each, with thousands of tickets going unused.

Chelsea officials complained of the lack of "charter aircraft" to Baku and the poor "transport infrastructure" that limited the number of flights in the days around the game.

Baku officials offered Chelsea fans the alternative of flying to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and then taking a 12-hour overnight train to Baku, an offer that Chelsea balked at.

Many British citizens of Armenian heritage also complained on social media that they were refused visas because of their Armenian last names, although those assertions were not independently verified.

Others said they wouldn't even attempt to get a visa despite assurances from Azerbaijani officials that they would be granted them to attend the match.

The problems associated with this Europa League final has led some people to ask: Why Baku?

"[The Mkhitaryan situation] is something that should not happen in football," said famous coach Arsene Wenger, who managed Arsenal from 1996 until last year. "I feel it's not normal that in 2019 -- inside Europe, with very sophisticated democracies -- that you cannot play for political reasons."

Human Rights Requirements

Although Azerbaijan will also host four international soccer games at next year's Euro 2020 championship, Evain said he thinks this may be the last time such a problematic situation comes up involving UEFA.

"The [hosting of the] final was awarded two years ago; now it would be a bit different because UEFA has implemented human rights requirements in their bidding requirements, so a country which would apply to host the final of the Europa League, or a game in the Euro championship, would have to match a certain number of human rights requirements, and I believe that Azerbaijan would not be able to match them."

Azerbaijan's human rights record has long been criticized.

"We must ensure that Azerbaijan isn't allowed to 'sportswash' its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare," Kate Allen, Amnesty International's director in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

"Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted. Unfair trials and smear campaigns remain commonplace."

Allen noted as well a poor record for Azerbaijan on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, with many members of that community arrested or choosing to flee the country to escape persecution.

Evain said his organization worked with UEFA to pressure Azerbaijani officials to scrap a requirement in which a visa application to the country had to include an HIV-free declaration.

"It was pure homophobia -- targeted discrimination," he said, adding that he hoped the requirement would be permanently waived by Baku.

'Whitewashing Exercise'

Evain, who is in Baku for the game, vowed that his organization would work to guarantee that the controversial situation created by the game in Baku is the last of its kind.

"We have to maintain pressure on UEFA and other football governing bodies to ensure that this kind of game does not happen again. Because it's not acceptable. We're all put in the situation where we are part of the whitewashing exercise, because that is the strategy of the Azerbaijani authorities."

Baku also controversially hosts the Azerbaijan Grand Prix Formula One motor race annually, and the current UEFA controversy has reportedly prompted promoters to weigh a plan for adding charter flights to accommodate crowds for the 2020 race.