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Baku boycott would solve Arsenal dilemma rather than leave a man behind

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/05/2019 Barry Glendenning
a young man wearing a black shirt: Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan will play no part in the Europa League final against Chelsea because of concerns over his safety. © PA Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan will play no part in the Europa League final against Chelsea because of concerns over his safety.

Leave no man behind. A code embraced by the US military, it refers to army policy of doing everything and anything possible to avoid abandoning troops behind enemy lines. A commendable dictum, despite the accompanying risks, it is one the Arsenal hierarchy may ponder ruefully as their players and backroom staff set off for next week’s Europa League final, leaving one of their own potentially key troops behind before even arriving at the Baku battlefield.

In the meantime a “letter voicing their concerns” has been dispatched to Uefa and, at a recent media briefing, Unai Emery made all the right noises about the importance of winning the final for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. “Micki”, as he is known to all and sundry at Arsenal, was unavailable to give his take on this Uefa-induced shambles, a conspicuous absentee as he will be on Wednesday night.

The Armenian midfielder will play no part having decided, in consultation with his family and his employer, to absent himself because of well-documented concerns over his safety and presumably that of his teammates. “We have a situation that is completely unacceptable,” fumed Arsenal’s managing director, Vinai Venkatesham. “It is not our decision or Henrikh’s but one we made together.”

Related: Baku farce is a reminder football should use its influence for the better | Paul MacInnes

Despite its blanket refusal to let Armenian citizens across its border, the Azerbaijan government had agreed to make an exception for Mkhitaryan as long as the midfielder agreed to play ball and nothing else. “If our purpose is to play political games around it, that is something different, but I hope it is not, because you are being paid as a footballer, not as a politician, so let’s leave other issues aside,” said their ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizadeh, in what sounded not so much like an assurance as a thinly veiled threat. Upon discovering Mkhitaryan would not be travelling to Baku, Taghizadeh accused the player of making “a political statement” before reiterating Azeri assurances no harm would come to the player in the unlikely event he changed his mind.

Such talk is cheap and it remains unclear how exactly the Azeris planned to guarantee the safety of a hopelessly exposed player as he went about his business on a vast football pitch in a stadium late at night. As any prominent Brexiteer who has had a suit ruined in the recent spate of amusing milkshake attacks while wandering Britain’s streets will attest, the presence of burly security guards is clearly no deterrent to anyone armed with a paper cup of Five Guys icy salted caramel beverage and a clear line of sight.

Boycotting the final is an option that remains open to Arsenal and one the club ought to seriously consider despite the inevitable repercussions. It clearly won’t happen as, speaking on Wednesday, Emery repeated the party line that, while it was a source of great regret that Mkhitaryan will miss out, the huge importance of the game they will now play without him cannot be overstated.

Although it is churlish to criticise somebody’s game attempts to express themselves in a language they are nowhere near mastering, it is no exaggeration to say the Arsenal manager’s public utterances can often border on the unintelligible. However, his refusal to publicly criticise Uefa for what amounts to the kind of discrimination and exclusion it always claims to be so wholeheartedly against could not have been more clear and left no doubt where his personal and professional priorities understandably lie.

Related: Why did Uefa hand Azerbaijan hosting rights for the Europa League final?

Uefa, despite its decidedly weak defence of its right to stage a prestige European final in a country where anyone with the wrong passport or surname is unwelcome, has been roundly panned for what was clearly an ill-advised move. If Arsenal refused to contest the Europa League final in Azerbaijan, ideally with the backing of their opponent, Chelsea, they would almost certainly generate the kind of global headlines that would be equally unwelcome at the headquarters of European football’s governing body and might force its occupants into a climbdown.

Of course, the ramifications for the club could be severe but hardly ruinous. They would incur an automatic €500,000 (£441,000) fine, with Uefa reserving the right to impose further sanctions, probably in the form of a – possibly extended – ban from European competition. The accompanying loss of revenue could be as high as £50m per season in European exile and possibly even more once the knock-on effects inevitably kicked in. Meanwhile in the short term their reluctance to cry foul before the sale of tickets for this most farcical of finals means fans who have made plans to travel to Baku would also lose out. Is it naive to speculate that Gooners willing to travel so far to support their beloved club might perhaps be prepared to go just a little further and take the financial hit?

Those who think so are unlikely to agree that at some point the value of basic human decency has to be weighed against that of glory and the bottom line. While the Europa League final will quickly be consigned to the record books once the cup has been hoisted, this season’s would unquestionably live far longer in the memory if it were not actually played.

Win or lose against Chelsea in Baku, any medals presented to Arsenal’s players may weigh a little heavily around their necks. In the face of hostile administrative fire from Uefa, their superiors, in consultation with one of their teammates, eschewed the morally courageous but potentially expensive option and left a man behind.

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