The English soccer team Arsenal has arrived in Baku for an October 4 match against Azerbaijani team Qarabag. But they will be without one of their stars, midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a native of Armenia.
The question of whether or not Mkhitaryan would travel with his teammates was one of the major storylines ahead of the match. As a rule, Azerbaijan does not allow Armenians to visit, regardless of their passport, the result of the countries' bitter, ongoing conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the Azerbaijani authorities do make exceptions for Armenian visitors in some special cases, including sports competitions. Ahead of the match, Azerbaijani authorities insisted that Mkhitaryan would not be denied a visa on the basis of his nationality.
At the last minute, though, it was announced that Mkhitaryan would not be making the trip to Azerbaijan. Arsenal's head coach, Unai Emery, was vague when asked about the Armenian's absence in Baku.
“He cannot travel here,” Emery said at a pre-match press conference in Baku, ahead of the group stage match in the Europa League championships. “We are here, the players with the best mentality and preparation and possibility to play tomorrow.” Reporters pushed Emery to address the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, The Guardian reported, and Emery (wisely) sidestepped the issue.
“My work is football,” he said. “I respect each person, I respect each people, I respect each culture, I respect each country. But I don’t know each situation in every country. For me, he cannot play tomorrow. There is respect for Mkhi and respect for you. Today we are here with the opportunity to play well.”
Other reports suggested that it was Mkhitaryan's safety at issue. ESPN's Arsenal beat reporter Mattias Karen said on Twitter that his sources said the absence was the “[p]layer's own decision based on the security situation amid the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.” UEFA, the soccer governing body told BBC Sport that it was a “mutual decision” by Arsenal and Mkhitaryan “not to travel to this match for safety reasons.”
Qarabag's coach, Gurban Gurbanov, suggested that Mkhitaryan may, indeed, face security problems. “I don't like to mix sports and politics, but sometimes it's impossible,” he told a press conference. “Many athletes from that country [Armenia] have come here. But there are people in Azerbaijan who have lost loved ones in that conflict, and it's difficult to restrain one's emotions. If five or ten people can't control themselves, the whole crowd would support them. It's better for everyone that he didn't come.”
Plenty of Armenian athletes have in fact traveled to Azerbaijan in recent years for sports competitions, including the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Armenians in that event were frequently booed by local fans, but there were no security incidents.
More recently, however, Armenia's judo team skipped the sport's world championships in September, held in Baku, for security reasons. Mkhitaryan himself skipped another match in Baku, in 2015, when he was with a German team.
Holding out Mkhitaryan comes without much cost, as Arsenal are heavily favored over Qarabag. They could face a tougher decision down the road, however, if they continue to advance in the tournament: the tournament's final will be played in Baku in May 2019.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.