I’m often told that politics has no place in football, but those critics are oddly silent as Arsenal and Chelsea fans struggle to get to a match that a professional footballer won’t play in because he doesn’t feel safe.
The churlish out there have asked if Arsenal will even miss Henrikh Mkhitaryan given that he’s not a guaranteed starter. Even though that question is the wrong one, let’s answer it before we move on.
Mkhitaryan has played in every Europa League game this season for Arsenal bar one. The match he missed was the contest against Qarabag in Baku back in October. He has earned the right to play in this showpiece final without worrying if he will be assaulted for doing so.
But Mkhitaryan’s form or role in the squad is irrelevant. Even if it was a 17-year-old Armenian youth player that Arsenal wanted to bring along for the experience, that would still be a massive problem.
We’ve learned that even Arsenal fans with Armenian heritage won’t be able to travel to the game and that neither club will shift their disgraceful 6,000 allocation because of the logistics of getting to the venue. How can any of this be acceptable?
Arsenal have issued relatively strong statements, but they made no mention of any problems with Baku when the venue was chosen two years ago. They probably assumed Arsenal would be in the Champions League so it would be someone else’s problem. But it isn’t. It’s everybody in football’s problem and if you can’t see that, then you’re in for a massive shock with what will follow in the not-too-distant future.
Uefa knew exactly what they were doing when they handed the final to Baku. It wasn’t about ‘spreading the game’ as they claim, it was about sucking up to another oil-rich nation. It was given to a country on the far edge of the Caspian Sea for the same reason Fifa gave the World Cup to Qatar.
Football at the top level is no longer about the game or the fans, it’s about cold, hard cash.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan isn’t a big enough name for this to matter. His absence from the final will not impact viewing figures the way Lionel Messi missing a match would.
It’s the same with fans. What does it matter to Uefa that Arsenal and Chelsea will have around 6,000 fans between them in the stadium when they will air to millions around the globe? That’s what sponsors really care about. If they didn’t, we’d have heard something from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, FedEx, Hankook Tire, Heineken International or Kia Motors, but as far as I’m aware, they’ve said nothing. They’re fine with Baku, fine with Mkhitaryan and fans missing out because millions will see their logos on the TV. That’s what they care about. The match day fan at the top end of the game is an irrelevance beyond how they can be fleeced.
We can talk about the impact that would have on the atmosphere inside the ground but as long as the powers that be can make it sound good on the tellybox, that doesn’t matter either. Besides, real fans are only likely to protest and we can’t have that.
The decision by Uefa here is the thin end of a very thick wedge they are shoving into football. They are testing how far they can push before the clubs get serious and fight back.
If ever there was a game that should be boycotted, it is this one.
Without clubs, Uefa is nothing.
It’s time they were reminded of that before it’s too late.
This article was first published on Paddy Power.