When Arsenal travel to Baku on May 29th to face Chelsea in the Europa League Final, it may be without midfield regular Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Mkhitaryan’s native Armenia and host nation Azerbaijan have been embroiled in an ethno-political conflict centered on the Nagorno-Karabakh region since the 1980’s. Azerbaijan generally does not permit foreign nationals of Armenian descent to enter the country, although athlete exceptions have been made in the past.
UEFA’s policy is to send letters of support to assist players in securing visas for matches, but that really isn’t the issue here. It seems pretty clear that Mkhitaryan would be granted a visa. The concern is about what happens once he is in Baku. Arsenal have not received “acceptable guarantees” that it will be safe for him. Mkhitaryan has already twice not traveled to Azerbaijan for Europa League matches — in 2015 with Borussia Dortmund and earlier this season for the away match against Qarabag.
And even if UEFA, Azerbaijan, and Arsenal put additional protections in place to guarantee his physical safety, you have to wonder about the impact on his mental state and ability to focus on the match. We’ve seen time and again that football fans can be vile, hateful, and racist individuals. Would Mkhitaryan hear threats and chants about his ethnicity in the stadium? Not to go too far down the rabbit hole, but if that happens, how might UEFA handle it? Do they suspend the match? Right now, there are a whole host of questions and not many answers.
Mkhitaryan’s visa and safety issue isn’t the only snafu with the final. Arsenal and Chelsea supporters are up in arms over the meager ticket allocation. While I’m generally behind the idea of giving major sporting events to less traditional cities, in this case, UEFA may have bit off more than it can chew.