Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has expressed his astonishment that Henrikh Mkhitaryan won’t be able to play in the Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku over fears for the Armenian international’s safety.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have a century-long conflict stemming from the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, and there were concerns Mkhitaryan would not be safe in Baku.
Despite UEFA “guarantees” – after speaking to “the highest authorities in the country” – that the player would be safe, Arsenal opted to leave the midfielder behind.
“That’s something that should not happen in football,” Wenger, who brought Mkhitaryan to Arsenal, said in an interview on Thursday. “In the modern world, politically you cannot play a football game.”
Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s minister of youth and sports, told CNN’s Amanda Davies that the Azeri government provided two or three times as much paperwork than on any previous occasion for an athlete, and that there was nothing more they could do to give Mkhitaryan assurances over his safety.
“More?” Rahimov questioned. “What do you mean when you say more? More than a guarantee? More than 100%? Our feeling and our understanding about the security, we did all that. What more could we do?
“We can send a private jet for him? Accompanied by two F16 Fighting Falcons … a navy machine? I don’t know what more we could do.
“UEFA and Arsenal received all possible and not possible documentation. From my personal side, I sent a letter and signed the letter with a guarantee from the government, also from the Azerbaijan Football Federation, also from all the government states in charge for security.”
Arsenal said earlier this week that it was “disappointed” to leave its player behind but took the decision after discussions with Mkhitaryan and his family.
The club confirmed it has written to UEFA to express its “deep concerns.”
“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,” said UEFA earlier this week.
Chelsea and Arsenal fans traveling to Baku for the May 29 final face a logistical headache and a journey of more than 4,000 kilometers to watch the match.
With less than 12,000 tickets being offered to the two clubs of the 64,000 available in the vast Baku Olympic Stadium, plus flight times of more than 13 hours and prices upwards of $1,000, it’s fans once again paying a hefty price to watch their teams in Europe.
“It’s a little bit of a nightmare,” Wenger said of the journey fans going to the match. “But it’s the same for both teams, a final is a final. The teams have no problem, they live in ideal conditions.
“They have their private jet with nice business seats – but it’s the fans (who suffer).”