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When Politics and Football Collide

Century-long conflict could keep Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of the Europa League final in Azerbaijan

Firstpost print Edition

Arsenal have the chance to put a mediocre domestic season behind them and secure Champions League football by winning the Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku, Azerbaijan. For reasons beyond their control though, the Gunners may have to do without the services of their mercurial midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Mkhitaryan is Armenian. Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are, to put it mildly, hostile. The two countries, along with parts of Turkey, Russia and Georgia once formed the Transcaucasian Federation. When it disintegrated at the end of World War I, Armenia and Azerbaijan, now independent, went to war over some disputed territories. Enter the Soviet Union — the Big Fish.

Both countries were annexed by the communist behemoth and in 1923, the Soviets created an autonomous region called Nagorno Karabakh within Azerbaijan, with an ethnic Armenian majority. The reasons for this are not germane here — suffice to say that Soviet self-interest was at play.

Status quo reigned until 1988 when the USSR began to crumble. Nagorno Karabakh declared independence, Armenia sided with them and war broke out with Azerbaijan. 25,000 people were killed, more than a million displaced and horrific atrocities committed by both sides. A ceasefire, ironically brokered by Russia, came into effect in 1994 and Nagorno Karabakh has existed in a state of political limbo since then.

Meanwhile, the brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has sowed the seeds for seething hatred that continues to this day. There are no international peacekeeping forces on the ground, which has resulted in regular skirmishes between both sides.

Citizens of Armenia, as well as those of other countries who are of Armenian descent or those who have ever visited Nagorno-Karabakh, are forbidden entry to Azerbaijan. For athletes or those participating in events, it is customary for governing bodies and ministries to sort these matters out. In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest and Armenians were granted entry, although the contingent eventually withdrew from the competition.

In 2015, Baku hosted the first European Games, a multi-sport event. The Armenian delegation was granted visas and was amongst the 50 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to participate.

Even though the choice of a venue that is not welcoming to everyone for a showpiece final has been criticised, it is important to note that precedence and reassurances given by UEFA and Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry suggest that Mkhitaryan will be allowed to participate and that “all necessary security measures would be in place”. An Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesperson even went on to add that “sports and politics are separate”.

That is nonsense of course. Sports and nationality are inextricably linked to politics. Borussia Dortmund opted to leave Mkhitaryan behind for their Europa League clash against Azeri club Gabala in 2015. Arsenal too opted to travel without the midfielder for their match against FK Qarabag in the current campaign. Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov had then claimed that the Gunners had “tried to save” Mkhitaryan from the “pressure” of playing in Azerbaijan. Well, yes.

Europe’s contentious history often throw up such situations. The Champions League final is being held in Madrid this year. Had it been in Belgrade, Liverpool midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may well have missed the summit clash with Tottenham. Shaqiri is a Swiss national who fled his native Kosovo to escape Serbian persecution and made the ‘double-eagle’ gesture – a symbol of his ethnic Albanian heritage — every time he scored during the 2018 World Cup. The Serbians were incensed, with players and fans exchanging verbal barbs.

Shaqiri did not travel with Liverpool for their Champions League group game against Red Star Belgrade this season, with manager Jurgen Klopp saying the decision was based on “common sense” and “to make sure we can be focused on football.” The Reds would go on to lose 2-0 but in the final reckoning it didn’t have much of an impact on their European ambitions.

Much more will be at stake when Arsenal meet Chelsea in the final. Despite their storied history, the Gunners have won only one European trophy of note — the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. A Europa League win would go some way in filling this gaping hole in their resume. Not only that, having missed out on Champions League qualification for next season thanks to their fifth-placed finish in the Premier League, the only way they can do so now is by winning Europe’s second-tier tournament. Arsenal need all hands on deck.

Eventually, it will boil down to the collective choice made by Mkhitaryan and club management. The player has been pushed down the pecking order at the Emirates and didn’t start for Emery in both legs of the semi-final and the quarter-final. He could still be influential though — he has scored in a Europa League final before for Manchester United — but would his involvement be worth the risk? And will he be able to handle inevitable booing from the locals? The pressure may be too much, even for a footballer.

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