The backlash against UEFA’s decision to award the Europa League final to Baku in Azerbaijan has caused quite the backlash, and it’s one which the sport’s governing body had badly underestimated as Arsenal and Chelsea fans reject the opportunity to go and watch the final. UEFA has long been a subject of ire from supporters, be that due to their often-flimsy response to racially aggravated incidents or their inability to properly uphold Financial Fair Play regulations on a consistent basis.
Yet, what has finally turned the heads of the masses is the latest gaffe in which Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a key member of Unai Emery’s squad, will not be able to travel to Baku for the showpiece for geopolitical reasons. Despite the Azerbaijani government’s attempts to offer Mkhitaryan assurances of his safety, it was a rather laboured effort which left few feeling any more comfortable about the situation, certainly not the former Manchester United forward himself. For that reason, Mkhitaryan has refused to travel and will miss the biggest match of the Gunners’ season.
“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku, you’re safe there. If you want to play the issue then that’s a different story,” explained Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizadeh in an interview with Sky Sports. “This is a Class A event, if our purpose is to play political games around it then it’s something different, you’re being paid as a footballer not a politician, let’s leave other issues aside.”
This is hardly the glowing endorsement of safety that both Mkhitaryan and Arsenal were looking for ahead of the player’s decision not to travel, and in a further interview with talkSPORT, Taghizadeh was critical of the former Shakhtar playmaker.
“Our reaction? The word would be ‘disappointment’. Obviously, it’s his decision, but we’re disappointed by it,” he admitted. “We did our utmost to assure his safety would be guaranteed, but do I believe he is making a political statement? I’m afraid so. Honestly, there is a concern back here that what Mkhitaryan has done isn’t connected to his ethnicity or anything he’s doing as a professional footballer, but there is an issue.”
Whether or not the latter point is true or not is irrelevant, because of issues not at all relating to football, Mkhitaryan can’t play in the Europa League final and Arsenal are at a competitive disadvantage before kick-off. UEFA’s #EqualGame initiative is phenomenal and has been set up for all the right reasons for ending discrimination in the sport. However, the tagline of ‘Football is open to everyone’ has to apply to everyone across the board, and in this case, at this moment, it isn’t for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
UEFA had gone against their #EqualGame initiative the moment they selected Baku as the host of the final. Now of course, Azerbaijan should have the right to host a showpiece event, but not until they have their geopolitical issues sorted, or at the very least under control to a degree where they won’t impinge on the rights of anyone involved in the event.
Not only will UEFA have to defend against the negative PR of such a scenario, but they will also be hit in an area that hurts them far more. The 68,700 capacity Baku Olympic Stadium will be half empty for the all-English showpiece with the city of Baku itself not infrastructurally capable to handle the influx of supporters.
Arsenal and Chelsea’s fans have found it increasingly difficult to secure travel to the Azerbaijani capital, and there is no chance the ground will be filled by local supporters. There is every chance that this could be the worst attended Europa League final since the tournament’s rebrand in 2009, which will look awful to television audiences seeing waves of empty seats.
UEFA should be applauded for looking to pass the hosting duties of their showpiece matches around. It would become tedious and unfair if Wembley hosted it every year, but questions will be asked over just why Baku was chosen, especially in an era where nations are attempting to use sport to hide their geopolitical and human rights failings.
It remains to be seen just what the spectacle will be in Baku, and you can’t criticise Arsenal for not forfeiting the match when they have been given a golden opportunity to squeeze into the Champions League through the back door. Yet, the sorry episode will leave a sorry taste in the mouths of many, and it’s clear that UEFA never for one moment considered this turn of events, or at the very least underestimated the strength of feeling people would have against the Baku final.