Last week, Arsenal suffered a 4 to 1 defeat against its rival Chelsea at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Europa League final in Baku. While Arsenal fans nurse their wounded egos over what-if scenarios surrounding a Henrikh Mkhitaryan who had been allowed to play, Armenians can take a well-deserved victory lap.
The controversy over the Armenian midfielder’s exclusion from the final has caused much public embarrassment for Azerbaijan. The Caspian dictatorship’s hysterical anti-Armenian paranoia has been widely exposed. Baku’s human rights record has been utterly slammed on the floor of the British House of Commons. Soccer celebrities have spoken out in solidarity with their Armenian colleague. The UEFA has resorted to performing awkward mental gymnastics to justify its choice of Baku as host. Even Arsenal super-fan Piers Morgan announced his intention not to travel to the Azerbaijani capital, urging his team to “grow a pair.”
Heno’s boycott may have inflicted more damage to a hostile neighbor than any military action could have hoped for. Yet, one cannot escape the thought, however upsetting, that by warming the bench, the star footballer wasn’t exactly scoring match-points for Armenia either.
There are, of course, valid reasons for refusing to play in the capital of a nation which repeatedly declares war on the entirety of the earth’s Armenian population. Though the recollections by several Azeri officials of Armenian athletes safely attending events in Baku are technically accurate, they mask another reality. Seemingly contradicting the heavily-edited interviews circulated by Azeri state-run media, returning Armenian athletes have told another story. They described widespread verbal abuse in stadiums, intrusive security protocols and prison-like living conditions. Physical safety aside, Mkhitaryan was right to consider the psychological toll of playing in a hostile environment in his decision.
That being said, one would be hard-pressed to dismiss Azerbaijan’s guarantee of security as anything but genuine. Mkhitaryan is not only the most famous Armenian athlete out there, but he’s also the star player for one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world. Surely even the authorities in a nation which deifies axe-murderers would commit every resource available to ensure his safety. Such an image-conscious regime could not be foolish enough to risk incurring the sort of PR damage upon itself that no amount of petro-dollars or lobbyists could erase.
Planners in Azerbaijan must have had plenty to worry about without the looming Mkhitaryan scandal on the horizon. The Europa League championship match was plagued with hiccups from the moment the host city was announced. Fans found it difficult and expensive to reach Baku, which lies almost 2.5 thousand miles (4000 KM) from Britain, where both teams are based. While the stadium could hold up to 65,000 people, both clubs received only 6,000 tickets each due to concerns over Heydar Aliyev International Airport’s ability to handle the incoming traffic. In the end, they would manage to sell only half that number of tickets to fans.
Logistical nightmares aside, rulers in the Azeri capital rediscovered the futility of escaping public scrutiny when hosting a prestige-boosting international event. Journalists had no shortage of scandals to pick from when covering the match in Baku. The Guardian ran a series of pieces exploring financial links between the regime in Baku and UEFA. Such dealings may have led to the city being awarded the right to host the Europa League final, as well as four matches of the EURO 2020 cup. These investigations echo similar allegations surrounding the city’s hosting of other high-profile international events like the European Games 2015, the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix and Eurovision in 2012 (which Armenia also sat out).
Other international news outlets jumped on these image-lifting events to highlight the plight of the country’s LGBT community, journalists, political opponents and the poor. Crucially, while some Armenians took these exposés as ammunition with which to scoff at a rival, local activists welcomed the exposure as a chance to lift the veil on their resistance to a repressive government. These people deserve any media attention they can get. Many of these stories risked being overshadowed by a more significant scandal.
Lost in the news cycle of Azerbaijan’s reluctance to admit a soccer player carrying Armenian citizenship was coverage of its blunt refusal to accept fans carrying Armenian blood. London-born Arsenal supporter Raffi Ouzounian went public about his experience by Azeri customs despite holding season passes on top of a ticket to the final. So thorough were they to keep out members of an undesirable ethnicity that they also denied visas to Britons whose Cornish surnames coincidentally included the suffix “ian.” FIFA’s “No to racism” slogan must not have been translated into Azeri yet.
Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan has occupied international headlines quite a lot recently, though not for the reasons they would have hoped for. Nonetheless, Armenians should not be so eager to share in the spotlight. The Azeri ruling class keeps enough of its own skeletons in the closet to haunt any human rights watchdog for life without Armenia getting in on the pile-on.
Paradoxically, Baku might stand to benefit from the media fixation on the Mkhitaryan scandal. By quietly shifting the focus away from Azerbaijan’s racist visa policies, political repression and so on, President Aliyev gets to manipulate the media narrative by folding it into the more palpable framework of the Karabakh conflict. Compared to exposés on the ruling family’s offshore dealings in the international press, “reluctance to host a player from a hostile state” could be easier to digest. Talking heads in Baku have already accused the 30 year-old Armenian national of deliberately milking a manufactured controversy over his safety to prop up the Armenian narrative on the Karabakh conflict.
There are signs that things are changing, however. Though Baku will still host games for EURO 2020, newly introduced human rights requirements have all but disqualified Turkey’s candidacy for the subsequent tournament. The extent to which these developments were influenced by Armenia’s boycott policy remains unclear. That being said, the focus on Azerbaijan’s poor neighborly relations may hold far-reaching consequences for Armenia as well. Yerevan could find itself on the same black list as Baku. Indeed, any event too dangerous for Armenians to attend in Baku would likely not take place in Yerevan either for the same reason.
Ultimately, Mkhitaryan’s decision to skip the final was of less consequence than the glaring scandal generated by UEFA’s insistence on compromising a player’s safety for the game in the first place. By opting to sit out the final, he also missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate Armenia’s commitment to good sportsmanship over politics. Instead, his absence added to the list of precedents which the Azeris won’t hesitate to cite in opposition to future events hosted in Yerevan.
Admittedly, Armenia finds itself in a rather convenient position, sandwiched between authoritarian states whose megalomaniacal vanity projects routinely and spectacularly backfire. However, before we gleefully rub sand in Azerbaijan’s self-inflicted wounds, we should recognize their problems as little more than comically inflated versions of those we have struggled to overcome ourselves.
A year ago, Armenia earned the affection of the international community by peacefully uprooting an autocratic regime and holding free and fair elections. The task of establishing a law-abiding, individual rights-respecting, market-oriented democratic state should be enough to keep us all too busy to point fingers. With that in mind, none should underestimate our neighbors’ ability to score spectacular own-goals.