Arsenal and Chelsea supporters alike have cause for concern about the upcoming Europa League final. With Europe’s second grandest trophy on the line, some pre-match nerves would be expected. Much of these fears, though, stem from off-the-field issues arising from the location of the match itself. Why is the location problematic, and what does UEFA’s choice of venue mean for the match ahead?
UEFA’s decision to host the Europa League Final in Baku, Azerbaijan, is concerning. Placing the match in a location so inaccessible for fans – the trip from London to Baku clocks in at well over 2,000 miles – was a poor start. However, the most damning failure of UEFA in regards to this Europa League final is their selection of a host nation that actively prohibits the entry of certain nationalities, players included. Azerbaijan does not allow Armenians to access the country, which includes Chelsea and Arsenal supporters of Armenian descent as well as Arsenal playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Why Mkhitaryan and others face difficulties entering Azerbaijan is upsetting. Due to a decades-old clash over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region that has led to over 30,000 casualties, Azerbaijan and Armenia have no diplomatic relations. Anti-Armenian sentiment is so high in Azerbaijan, in fact, that 91% of Azerbaijanis believe Armenia to be “the biggest enemy of Azerbaijan.” The host nation denies the Armenian Genocide, and has vocally supported violence against Armenians. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been outspoken in support of the Armenian claim to the region, and he has visited Nagorno-Karabakh, which is considered a disputed military zone by Azerbaijan.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Henrikh Mkhitaryan did not accompany Arsenal to Baku for their match against Qarabag in the Europa League group stage this fall. Azerbaijan generally refuses to issue entry visas for Armenians, although some visas have been granted to athletes in the past. However, the threat of violence against the Armenian international further disincentivized him from playing, despite a bland reassurance from the Azerbaijani FA in response. In an impassioned speech in Parliament, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour party Tom Watson even spoke out against the location of the match, calling it “scandalous” that Mkhitaryan, along with Brits with Armenian surnames, are unable to travel to the match; this is a political issue just as much as it is a soccer one.
Now, with a major European final on the horizon, Mkhitaryan has announced that he will not travel with the Arsenal squad to the final, which is Arsenal’s first chance for European silverware in over a decade. Mkhitaryan has been valuable for Arsenal this year, with six goals and seven assists. While it is unknown if he would have started this game, he played the full 90 minutes in Arsenal’s last league game. Whether Mkhitaryan is a star or not is inconsequential to the issues plaguing the fixture. It makes no difference if he is Arsenal’s star player or if he were to be just a youth prospect; the implication that a player could be arbitrarily barred from playing in a European final is sickening.
It is not as if this was a new problem, either – Mkhitaryan didn’t travel to Azerbaijan in 2015, when his Dortmund side faced Gabala in their Europa League matches – and the implication that UEFA would willingly schedule a final in a country where potential participants wouldn’t be safe is frightening. There have been notions of a boycott, and whether or not such a substantial action could even happen, it would certainly be richly deserved. Both Chelsea and Arsenal are aggrieved by the situation; were Chelsea to forfeit the trophy to Arsenal, both sides would get Champions League football next year. Any boycott would likely have to be player-led – imagine Eden Hazard, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil, and N’Golo Kante all refusing to travel with the squads as well – but would certainly be merited. However, any club that forfeits a final would risk sanctions from UEFA that could even include exclusion from future European competitions; it is almost certain that the match will be played.
UEFA has erred in the past. Their disregard for enforcing their own Financial Fair Play laws and their comedic punishments for racist actions at European games are widely known. That Mkhitaryan won’t be able to contribute to his team sets a dangerous precedent for UEFA and the soccer world. While the winner of the match will be able to celebrate their justly earned silverware, the tie will be most certainly be clouded by the exclusion of Mkhitaryan.