Azerbaijan hoped the Europa League final would mark its emergence as an international football power — off the field, anyway. But it has instead found itself in a storm of bad PR.
Arsenal and Chelsea meet Wednesday in a country that few of their fans have been able to reach, and with one of the leading players ruled out for political reasons.
Azerbaijan does not lack ambition in global soccer. It also bid for this season’s Champions League final, but lost out to Madrid. Baku is hosting four European Championship games next year, including a quarterfinal, when some of the same issues could emerge again.
Here is a look at some off-field issues around the game:
Arsenal is leaving midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan at home in a rare case of politics keeping a star player out of a major final.
The Gunners wanted Azerbaijan to guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety — something the government in Baku says it did — amid tension between Azerbaijan and his native Armenia.
“It’s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it,” Mkhitaryan said Tuesday. As if to highlight the problem, the comments beneath his Instagram post swiftly turned into an insult-filled argument between pro-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijan voices.
The reason for the tension is Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan which has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. Some neighboring districts are also under the control of those forces.
Mkhitaryan visited Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012 and handed out gifts to local ethnic-Armenian families. Under Azerbaijani law, any travel to the region is considered illegal unless the government in Baku authorizes it.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has alleged Armenia is exploiting Mkhitaryan’s case for political purposes and says Armenian athletes in other sports have competed in Baku previously with no problems.
AZERBAIJAN’S RIGHTS RECORD
Hosting a major final has also brought scrutiny and criticism of the oil-rich nation’s human rights record.
Amnesty International has accused the government of cracking down on opponents and LGBT people in recent years, and the police of torturing suspects.
“We must ensure Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to ‘sportswash’ its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare,” the rights organization’s director for Britain, Kate Allen, said Wednesday.
“Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted.”
Ruling party lawmaker Huseynbala Miralamov told the Trend news agency Amnesty International had presented “no facts” and accused it of “dancing to the tune of Armenia.”
Azerbaijan’s government has not specifically addressed Amnesty’s remarks, but it often says foreign criticism of its rights record is exaggerated. Fans will find a welcoming atmosphere in Baku, the Foreign Ministry has said.
Azerbaijan is ruled by President Ilham Aliyev, who has been in power since 2003 and won another seven-year term last year with 86 percent of the vote.
Azerbaijan’s location on the fringes of Europe — it shares a border with Iran — is a headache for fans.
The relatively few direct flights to Baku from other European destinations quickly sold out and hotel prices in the Azerbaijani capital have soared. Some English supporters are planning lengthy and arduous journeys, including flying to neighboring Georgia and taking an overnight bus.
Arsenal and Chelsea have failed to sell out their small allocations of 6,000 tickets apiece and local demand may not be strong enough to fill the 68,700-seat Olympic Stadium. Some sponsors could also fail to take up their allocations, and any empty seats at a European final would be awkward for UEFA.
Arsenal has protested in strong terms, demanding organizers UEFA put more emphasis on fans when it picks future host cities.
Still, both clubs are global brands and Azerbaijan’s frequent flights from Bahrain, Dubai and Qatar could mean wealthy Arsenal and Chelsea supporters from Asia flock to the game.
AZERBAIJAN’S FOOTBALL FUTURE
Like Qatar before it, Azerbaijan is a newly wealthy country using its money to reshape the football landscape.
Azerbaijan’s ambitions don’t quite match Qatar’s grand plans for the 2022 World Cup — not yet at least. However, it’s eyeing the final as a chance to market itself as a tourist destination, something it’s previously tried by hosting Formula One races and the Eurovision song contest.
The four European Championship games in Baku next year will mean another round of travel problems for fans, unless changes are made.
The most critical phase in 2020 will be the six-day turnaround some supporters will have after their second-round game to book travel to Baku for a quarterfinal.
Azerbaijan isn’t much of a power on the pitch just yet — it has never qualified for a major tournament unlike Qatar, which won this year’s Asian Cup.
The national team has improved, though, and battled to a 2-1 loss to World Cup finalist Croatia in qualifying in March. Still, the chances of Azerbaijan reaching the tournament it is co-hosting remain low.