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CHELSEA manager Maurizio Sarri called for the Europa League final to be moved from Azerbaijan to accommodate fans and allow Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan to play.
The decision to play next week’s match in Baku has been slammed not only by fans of the two London clubs but by the football community as a whole.
When news broke that each club was allocated a pitiful 6,000 tickets each, when Baku’s Olympic Stadium has a capacity of just under 70,000, questions were asked as to why this venue was chosen to host a European cup final.
Uefa’s response was to argue that ticket allocation was based on how many travelling fans it believed Baku’s airport could handle.
However, when reports emerged that Mkhitaryan was unlikely to play due to his being Armenian – he confirmed on Tuesday that he would miss the match amid safety concerns – fans called for the match to be boycotted by the clubs unless it was moved immediately.
Sarri echoed the calls for a new venue, saying: “The location is a big problem, for the fans. I would like it to be in another location,” before adding: “I am very sorry for the [Mkhitaryan] situation. I would like to see him on the pitch. You have to respect the decision of the man.”
Sarri’s call came hours after Amnesty International accused Uefa of allowing Azerbaijan to “sportswash its appalling human rights record” by not only staging next week’s Europa League Final but Euro 2020 matches.
The ongoing political conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being used by human rights groups to argue that Baku should never have been given the right to stage such a high-profile football match.
Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen slammed Uefa’s decision and pointed out that governments love using events such as cup finals as a way to “distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations.”
She said: “Fans will be glued to their TVs during this game but we must ensure that Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to ‘sportswash’ its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare.
“Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted. Unfair trials and smear campaigns remain commonplace.
“LGBTI people have been arrested, and even people fleeing the country have been harassed and pressured to return.
“Fans, players and backroom staff can help prevent Azerbaijan’s likely attempt to sportswash its image by informing themselves about the human rights situation behind the glitzy facade of Wednesday’s match.
“All too often, governments are using high-profile sporting competitions to distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations, to instead project an image of openness. This couldn’t be further from the truth with the current administration, and the Arsenal-Chelsea clash is just the latest reminder of this.”
The country, which has been run by President Ilham Aliyev since 2003, is currently ranked 166th on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, the lowest ranking in Europe.
For its part, the Azerbaijan Football Association has said it regrets Mkhitaryan’s “unwarranted” decision to stay away and reiterated its commitment to Uefa that all visitors for the game will be welcome, although some Arsenal fans have been denied visas due to their dual British-Armenian citizenship.
And Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador was less than pleasant in a statement on the situation, in which he said: “His problem is that he has visited a military-occupied portion of Azerbaijan without permission from the Azerbaijani government.
“This entails consequences including being blacklisted by the government. But he will be able to have security and safety guarantees.
“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story.
“What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”
Mkhitaryan, who captains Armenia, has skipped club games in Azerbaijan before, at previous club Borussia Dortmund and with Arsenal earlier in the season.
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