Mkhitaryan is the latest victim of decision to give Azerbaijan the decider


It’s the memory of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s quiet and understated pride in his own country which makes you rage against the way that football’s governors — noses in the trough once more — have seen to it that he will not be playing in one of Europe’s showpiece events next week.

Mkhitaryan’s time in Manchester was not the happiest, though far less appreciated than his struggles with the brooding malevolence of Jose Mourinho was the story of the part he came to play in the life of the local Armenian community.

It wasn’t just his willingness to stop for photographs at the Armenia Taverna, on the city’s Princess Street, but his interest in the lives of those in that community. In every way, he was one of them.

That kind of humanity is a very long way from sport’s cynical willingness to be bought off by the despicable leaders of Azerbaijan – a country which imprisons journalists, persecutes dissidents and has displayed a breathtaking contempt for the rule of law when it comes to Armenia.

There are no diplomatic relations between the two countries because of a long-running dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The case of an Azerbaijani army henchmen, Ramil Safarov, says everything about the country which Uefa, in its infinite wisdom, decided was an appropriate venue for Arsenal’s match against Chelsea.

Safarov was a borderline psychopath, breaking into the room of an Armenian army lieutenant, Gurgan Margaryan, during a Nato-sponsored training seminar in Budapest 15 years ago and axing the man to death.

He was convicted of first-degree murder by the Hungarian courts, dealt a minimum sentence of 30 years, yet somehow secured extradition to Azerbaijan. There, he received a hero’s welcome, was pardoned by the country’s current president Ilham Aliyev, provided with an apartment and eight years’ back pay.

This the kind of climate which lead to Mkhitaryan and Arsenal’s confirmation, on Tuesday, that it is impossible for him to fly to Baku for this weekend’s final. Yet money talks in a world when sportswashing is a now fact of life.

Baku was awarded the Europa League final, in 2017, just five months before it had been revealed that Aliyev and his odious elite were operating a £2bn slush fund, paying anyone they could to burnish the president’s deeply tarnished image and promote a positive image of his oil-rich country.

There has been no shortage of takers. Azerbaijan has hosted the IAAF’s European Games (2015), the World Boxing Championships (2010) and the under-17 Women’s World Cup (2017). Taekwondo, gymnastics and chess have all piled in. The country’s first Formula One Grand Prix took place in 2016.

The glad-handing would be laughable were it not so utterly dismal. When Tony Blair arrived to deliver a speech in Baku – estimated fee: £90,000 – the father of Eynulla Fatullayev, a prominent journalist held in solitary confinement at a freezing Communist-era jail, hoped to hear a mention of his son. None was forthcoming. Blair joked about the weather and praised a new £185m chemical plant.

This is the nation which ranks 177th out of 196 countries for press freedom. It has been ranked by a leading global gay rights organisation as the worst place in Europe to be LGBT. And, over the last 30 years, its leaders have allegedly engaged in the systematic destruction of traces of the country’s Armenian heritage.

The nation’s leaders declared a few days ago, without the faintest hint of self-awareness, that Mkhitaryan would be ‘permitted’ to play in the final. As if that were its remotest right. It almost goes without saying that anyone with an Armenian passport, or dual British-Armenian nationality, will not be able to attend the final.

It requires little imagination to know how Mkhitaryan’s sister, Monica, who works for Uefa, feels about this. Or his mother Marina, who works for Armenian FA.

“I struggle to find words for how strongly I feel,” said Arsenal managing director Vinai Venkatesham on Tuesday. “We don’t feel he can travel and it’s extraordinarily sad. You don’t get a chance to play in a major European final often. I can’t find the words. We made our point clear to Uefa.”

The club ought to have known they were talking to the wall. Uefa is already cashing in on its next payday from Baku, which has been permitted one of the continent-wide Euro 2020 games.

Demands that the decision be reversed reached a new pitch on Tuesday but don’t hold your breath. When the sense of collective indignation has subsided, the gravy train will move on.



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