Arsenal attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan could miss the Europa League final over concerns for his safety at the event’s location in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, according to the club.
Arsenal confirmed to the English media via a spokesperson that the club is not satisfied with the assurances they have received from UEFA regarding Mkhitaryan’s safety on the trip. “We are seeking guarantees from UEFA that it will be safe for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to travel to Baku for the Europa League final, which both Arsenal and Micki require for him to be included within our squad,” the statement said. “Acceptable guarantees have not been received yet, and we hope that UEFA will be able to supply these promptly. We are of course hugely concerned that the location of the final could lead to Micki not being able to play in a European final.”
According to a report by the BBC, UEFA has said the situation is still “a work in progress.”
However, despite Arsenal’s publicized concerns, the Associated Press reports that Azerbaijan has indicated that there will be no problems for Mkhitaryan entering the country. “Many major sports events have been hosted in Azerbaijan, and Armenian athletes have taken part in them. Sports and politics are separate,” said ministry spokeswoman Leyla Abdullayeva as quoted by the AP.
In addition, the AP received a statement from UEFA that seemed to indicate they had received assurances of Mkhitaryan’s safety, but did not mention a relationship with the Azerbaijani government. “Assurances were sought on this matter by UEFA and Arsenal FC, with the Azerbaijan Football Association confirming that there would be no problem for the player in question to enter and stay in Azerbaijan and that all necessary security measures would be in place,” UEFA told the Associated Press via email.
The Armenian international missed Borussia Dortmund’s Europa League trip to Azerbaijani club Gabala in 2015, and he missed Arsenal’s trip to Azerbaijani club Qarabag in Europa League group stage play back in October, with tensions between the two countries high. However, Qarabag head coach Gurban Gurbanov said back in October before the match that there should be no problems with Mkhitaryan’s travel to and from the country, and that Arsenal may have simply left him off the roster to avoid the problem altogether.
“If Henrikh Mkhitaryan would come to Azerbaijan it is not the first time,” Gurbanov said. “A lot of Armenian sportsmen came to Azerbaijan but it is the choice of Arsenal that they didn’t send him. Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn’t send Mkhitaryan.”
Relations between the two countries have been excessively strained since the late 80’s and early 90’s when Armenian-backed forces took control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan. The conflict was somewhat resolved in 1994 with a cease-fire but it has escalated in the past few years, including a brief clash in 2016 and subsequent reverberations.
Arsenal is set to play fellow Premier League side Chelsea in the Europa League final on May 29.