An #EqualGame, Unless You Happen To Be Armenian

Sportwashing ain’t what it used to be. In the days before mass media, it was all pretty straightforward. In 1934, the World Cup finals were held in fascist Italy. Mussolini nobbled the referees, and the host nation won the tournament. By 1978, it was a bit more difficult to cover up. The Argentinian military junta went on a charm offensive and cleaned the main travel routes to matches, but the host nation winning continues to have an invisible asterisk against it in the record books and, whilst the domestic PR game was won, the country’s international reputation didn’t improve much as a result of it all.

The internet, however, has changed everything. The owners of Manchester City and PSG are finding that, rather than laundering the reputation of their countries on the international stage, supporters now know more than they might otherwise have done about the unsavoury behaviour in which they engage. It’s a feeling that the people of Baku in Azerbaijan might well now be experiencing as a result of this morning’s confirmation that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not travel there for the forthcoming Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea because the player does not feel that his safety can be guaranteed in Baku.

The decision to host this match there had already undergone something of a battering since it was first announced. In 2017, the Azerbaijani Laundromat scandal confirmed through leaked emails that £2bn had been funnelled out of the country between 2012 and 2014 through various European financial institutions and companies as payola to lobbyists and politicians to clean up the country’s international reputation. As a result of this, thirteen members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were found to have accepted gifts or bribes from the Azerbaijani government and were expelled from the Council of Europe altogether.

Activists reported on the culture of fear surrounding those attempting to report on goings-on within a country in which the president, Ilham Aliyev, won 86% of the vote for a third successive term last year and in which corruption is widespread, with journalists being routinely being imprisoned on jumped-up charges after having spoken out against the government. Reports of torture are not unheard of. “Not content with crushing all forms of pluralism, president Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining media critics since 2014,” stated the press freedom lobby group Reporters Without Borders in 2015, “Independent journalists and bloggers are jailed on absurd grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail or bribes.” As if to underline this, the Azerbaijani government banned journalists from a number of publications including the Guardian, as well as human rights activists, from obtaining visas to enter the country for the 2015 European Games athletics tournament in Baku.

We’ve seen repeated examples over the years of football’s governing bodies ignoring trifling matters such as human rights records, but the decision to host the 2019 Europa League final in Baku hit a new depth today when Arsenal confirmed that midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan would not be travelling for the match because his safety could not be guaranteed. Arsenal have been urging UEFA to make “acceptable guarantees” regarding the player’s safety for a couple of weeks now, but this morning the club confirmed that Mkhitaryan, after having discussed the matter with his family, the player considered that it would not be safe for him to travel to the country.

So, what is the reason behind all of this? The answer, but of course, is politics. Mkhitaryan is Armenian, and has earned 82 caps for his national team, has been the team captain as well as being their record goalscorer. Armenia has been in a state of conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabak, which is internationally recognised as being Azerbaijani territory but has a population that is roughly three-quarters Armenian, for more than three decades.

A stop-start war began between the two countries which escalated following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but which eventually led to an uneasy Russia-brokered ceasefire in 1994. There have been occasional flare-ups of hostilties ever since, though, with allegations of ethnic cleansing having been levelled against both sides, including claims that over the last thirty years the Azerbaijani government have engaged in the systematic destruction of traces of the country’s Armenian heritage, including protected monuments.

It can hardly be said that UEFA weren’t already aware of these risks, either. On top of the whole European Games visa fiasco, they’ve been quietly keeping the two nations apart in the draws for international tournament qualifying for a long time, and in addition to this, when Arsenal played the Azerbaijani club Qarabag in the group stages of this year’s tournament at the start of October, Mkhitaryan was left at home. The player has made previous trips to the disputed territory on behalf of charities and has been awarded the NKR Prime Minister’s medal by the Armenian government. None of this, however, should mitigate the ability of the player to travel to Baku in order to play in such a high profile match as this.

There is substantial social media support for either an Arsenal boycott or for both Arsenal and Chelsea to boycott next week’s final, a degree of which is likely feeding off the unhappiness that was already in air concerning Baku’s suitability as a venue for such a high-profile match and the relatively small – 6,000 for each club, in a stadium with a capacity of almost 70,000 – ticket allocations. Complaints concerning this year’s final are rooted in something valid. There aren’t enough flights to Baku and there probably aren’t enough hotel rooms. And there is an inherent problem in the fact that decisions on venues for these matches are made years in advance.

Quite asides from that, though, there is little enough redistribution of anything in world football these days, and the fact that the European tournament finals are spread around some of the continents less fashionable cities is good for European club football. The last ten years has included Bucharest, Dublin, Solna and Warsaw amongst its host cities for the Europa League, whilst next year’s is to be held in Gdansk. Even the Champions League, meanwhile, has been in Cardiff and Kiev over the last two years and will be held in Istanbul next year. Moving every final to Madrid, London, Paris or Berlin would be another little tilt in the direction of the biggest clubs and the biggest federations.

This needs to be said, because the calls for the final to be moved because it was a long way away didn’t really carry much merit. There was greater merit to the argument that it should be moved because of the flights and hotels situation made it an unsuitable venue for the match, which has also been raised by Arsenal in a letter of dissatisfaction to UEFA sent this week. An unsuitable venue is an unsuitable venue regardless of its location, and the attitude of Azerbaijan towards doing anything about that has broadly been a shrug of the shoulders. Indeed, when asked about it by Sky Sports News, the Azerbaijani ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh UK confirmed that Mkhitaryan could contact him directly to guarantee his safety in Baku for the match, but also added that:

His problem is that he has visited a military occupied portion of Azerbaijan which in doing so without permission from Azerbaijani 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.

Which sounds an awful lot like a thinly-veiled threat, from here, and it certainly doesn’t sound like a blanket guarantee of his safety there. What, exactly, does it mean to be “blacklisted” by the Azerbaijani government? What does he mean by “if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story.” What would he consider “playing the issue” to be, and what would be the consequences for doing so? Regardless of Mkhitarian’s allegiances, national or even political, the potential ramifications anything should be clearly laid out, rather than communicated through weasel words, the implications of which are clear to all. To do otherwise is not very… diplomatic, really.

There is greater merit still to the idea that it could be moved because of Mkhitarian’s withdrawal from the match, but even this isn’t bullet-proof – ultimately, the decision not to travel was one made by Mkhitarian himself, and that gives UEFA just enough cover for not moving the match. It was the player’s choice. Nothing we could do, guv. Quite asides from that, with the Champions League final three days later and the final of the Nations League starting shortly after that, UEFA are not going to want to postpone this match, and certainly not eight days before it’s due to be played.

This sort of realpolitik also most likely plays into the fact that neither of the competing clubs seem to have given much shrift to the idea of boycotting, themselves. The magnetic pull of competition alone makes it a difficult leap for any club to take, but in this case Arsenal are relying upon it. After having finished in fifth place in the Premier League at the end of last season, winning the Europa League offers the club a last roll of the dice for a backdoor route into next year’s Champions League. Boycotting the match wouldn’t just end that. Spoiling one of UEFA’s showcase matches of the year might well result in a ban from European competition.

What, exactly, are UEFA’s thoughts on the ambassador’s comments? What do they think “playing the issue” means? That a player has taken the decision not to travel because of safety issues is something that should be taken in good faith rather than replied to with a snide insinuation that he should be careful what he says or does. Had he travelled, not saying anything on the subject might have been wise advice, but it’s certainly concerning that the supposedly “hosting” country’s ambassador to the UK should take it upon himself to say what he said.

UEFA should also answer questions about the overall decision-making process regarding the venue. Were the number of flights and hotel rooms from major European cities a consideration when making the decision? What might they say to the suggestion that it wouldn’t be surprising if the low ticket allocations were linked to the lack of flights and hotel rooms? It’s a decision which acts as a damning indictment of the entire process by which these venues are chosen for these extremely high-profile events, and one which makes something of a mockery of UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign, which was only launched in August 2017.

This is a mess entirely of UEFA’s creation. The decision to host one of its final in the country ranks bottom of the table in the whole of Europe for press freedom, a country locked in a territorial dispute with another UEFA member and with a reputation for cracking down hard on political dissidence, was creating problems for themselves years ago. The match will go ahead because the first rule of professional football is that the show must go on. And since the whole mess has caused thousands – possibly millions – to read up on the state Azerbaijan’s government and its supporession of the press, it’s entirely possible that the hosting country isn’t feeling as though it’s going to get as much value from this entire exercise as it had hoped it would. This particular attempt at sportwashing involved stains that were too stubborn to remove.