LONDON — Arsenal football club announced on Tuesday that its Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not travel to Azerbaijan with his teammates for next week’s Europa League final against another English side, Chelsea.
Mkhitaryan’s participation in the May 29 match in Baku had been in doubt due to security concerns resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and, in particular, an Azerbaijani government policy of not allowing Armenians to visit the country.
“We are very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea,” Arsenal said in a statement.
“We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party,” it said.
“We have written to UEFA (European football’s governing body) expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective,” added the statement.
“We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.”
Mkhitaryan, who is also the captain of Armenia’s national football team, confirmed the “tough decision” on his Facebook page. “Having considered all the current options, we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad to the Europa League Final. 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. I will be cheering my teammates on! Let‘s bring it home Arsenal,” he wrote.
The 30-year-old is Armenia’s most successful and popular footballer who has previously played for two other major European clubs, Manchester United and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund.
Arsenal demanded “acceptable guarantees” of Mkhitaryan’s security from UEFA after qualifying for the Europa League final earlier this month. The Armenian player was already omitted from the squad for safety reasons when Arsenal played against an Azerbaijani club in Baku in the group stage of the competition last October.
Britain’s “The Daily Telegraph” newspaper quoted Elkhan Mammadov, the secretary general of Azerbaijan’s football federation, as saying on May 17 that Azerbaijani authorities have provided such guarantees to UEFA.
Azeri Ambassador’s “Assurance” Sounds Like a Veiled Threat
Meanwhile, Tahir Taghizadeh, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United Kingdom, spoke to Sky News this week on the matter, saying that the player would be safe—as long as he stuck to sports while in the country.
“This is a Class A event, if our purpose is to play political games around it it is something different, you are being paid as a footballer not a politician, lets leave other issues aside,” he said.
“His problem is that he has visited a military occupied portion of Azerbaijan which in doing so without permission from Azerbijani government.
“This entails consequences including blacklisted by the government. But he will be able to have security and safety guarantees.
“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story.
“What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”
It’s not the most reassuring message, is it? I mean ‘If you want to play the issue then that’s a different story’ sounds just a bit menacing actually. Not exactly the most reassuring comments.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry insisted on Tuesday, however, that Baku has failed to adequately guarantee Mkhitaryan’s security.
The ministry spokeswoman, Anna Naghdalian, also cited reports that Arsenal’s ethnic Armenian ticket holders have been barred from entering Azerbaijan. She condemned that as another “manifestation of racism” on the part of Baku.