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Baku farce shows football should start wielding its soft power for good

Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s absence from the Europa League final suggests the sport must rise to this political moment

Just as political enthusiasts found themselves casually deploying the lexicon of international trade after the Brexit vote, so football supporters are having to brush up on their international relations. After becoming familiar with the internecine struggles of the Arabian gulf these past few weeks, attention now turns to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the implications for a showpiece final next week.

At base, it’s a question of safety. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not travel with his Arsenal teammates to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Europa League final because – as an Armenian – he believes he will not be safe in the city. Azerbaijan customarily refuses entry to Armenian nationals and while its Football Association (and Uefa) insist “Micki” is welcome and every necessary preparation has been taken to protect him, neither the player nor his club is inclined to accept this argument. As a result, he is staying in London and rightly so. No game of football is worth endangering a person’s safety. To suggest, as the Azerbaijani ambassador to the UK has done, that the midfielder is playing politics with his decision is an inexcusable provocation.

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