May 24 – Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has added his voice to criticism surrounding UEFA’s choice of Azerbaijan for next week’s all-English Europa League final – and says the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan for political reasons “should not happen” in this day and age.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea have been unable to sell out their ticket allocation because of Baku’s inaccessibility and Wenger, who will not be there, says for both sets of fans it was “a little bit of a nightmare”.
“The teams have no problem. They live in ideal conditions – they have their private jet, nice business seats. But it’s the fans,” said Wenger who was speaking at the launch of his involvement with football technology company PlayerMaker.
Wenger also expressed his astonishment that Mkhitaryan won’t be able to play in Baku over fears for the Armenian international’s safety. Armenia and Azerbaijan have no diplomatic relations as a result of a conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan generally refuses foreign nationals of Armenian descent entry to the country.
Mkhitaryan has previously not travelled for UEFA club matches in Azerbaijan with Dortmund in 2015 and with Arsenal in the Europa League last October. And despite UEFA’s guarantees after speaking to “the highest authorities in the country” – that the player would be safe, Arsenal opted to leave the midfielder behind.
“That’s something that should not happen in football,” said Wenger, who brought Mkhitaryan to Arsenal. “I feel it’s not normal that in 2019 – inside Europe, with very sophisticated democracies – that you cannot play for political reasons.”
Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s minister of youth and sports, told CNN that the Azeri government provided two or three times as much paperwork than on any previous occasion for an athlete and that there was nothing more they could do to give Mkhitaryan assurances over his safety.
“We can send a private jet for him? Accompanied by two F16 Fighting Falcons … a navy machine? I don’t know what more we could do,” said Rahimov.
“UEFA and Arsenal received all possible and not possible documentation. From my personal side, I sent a letter and signed the letter with a guarantee from the government, also from the Azerbaijan Football Federation, also from all the government states in charge for security.”
Wenger, who ended his 22-year reign as Arsenal boss after the 2017-18 season, previously stated he intended to take charge of a new club early this year.
But the 69-year-old, who won three Premier League titles, told the BBC: “I thought I will come back into management very quickly, but I enjoyed taking a little distance. Now I’m at a crossroads.”
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