There are ‘no issues whatsoever’ to prevent Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan from travelling to Baku for the Europa League final against Chelsea, Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador has told talkSPORT.
Tahir Taghizade insists the Armenia captain’s personal safety has been ‘guaranteed’ and has suggested the Gunners star is actually making a political statement by not taking part in the match.
Arsenal have confirmed they will be without Mkhitaryan for the all-English European final, with the 30-year-old refusing to travel to Baku over the conflict between his country and host nation Azerbaijan.
The same political tensions saw him skip the Gunners’ clash against Qarabag in Baku earlier this season, while they also prevented him from playing for Borussia Dortmund in a Europa League game against Gabala – in northern Azerbaijan – in October 2015.
UEFA have been heavily criticised for their decision to stage the final in Baku, with Arsenal and Chelsea fans also experiencing issues with travel and acquiring tickets to the match.
In a statement, the Gunners said: “We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.”
But Taghizade told talkSPORT on Wednesday that Azerbaijani officials have given the club and player every assurance over his safety.
“Our reaction? The right word would be disappointment,” the ambassador told talkSPORT host Jim White.
“Obviously that’s his decision – his, his family’s and the club’s – but we are disappointed in it.
“We did our upmost to assure his safety would be guaranteed and the safety of anybody travelling to Baku, as well as the fans, team crews and other players.”
There is a suggestion Mkhitaryan could be making a personal political statement by not travelling to Baku, rather than having genuine concerns for his safety.
Azerbaijan and the midfielder’s native Armenia remain in conflict and the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – which sits within Azerbaijan’s geographical borders – is still disputed between the two neighbouring nations.
And Taghizade believes this may be the real reason behind Mkhitaryan’s choice to stay away from the Azerbaijani capital.
He said: “Do I think he is making a political statement? I am afraid so.
“Honestly, there is a concern here that what Mkhitaryan has done is not connected to his ethnicity or anything he’s doing as a pro footballer, but there is an issue.
“He has visited Nagorno-Karabakh, an occupied portion of Azerbaijan, at least once and that was an unsanctioned visit.
“Those people are usually black-listed in Azerbaijan, which means they are not able to get a visa or travel to Azerbaijan.
“But in this case, Mkhitaryan’s case has been settled and there is no issue whatsoever.
“There is absolutely no problem for Azerbaijan to receive Mkhitaryan and to provide for his physical safety and security. His physical safety is assured by every word I say.
“It’s ultimately his decision, but if we are looking for reasons to justify a decision that maybe longer in the making, that’s something different.”
Taghizade has also insisted he is ready and willing to talk to Arsenal and Mkhitaryan personally to allay their fears for safety and encourage the Gunners star to travel for the cup final.
“Absolutely I would talk to them, at any moment,” he added.
“If there is any contact I would be delighted to do that. If there is any chance of alleviating his concerns and doubts that are overshadowing his decision making, I would be delighted.
“I think this will be a great celebration of a great game. I have no dog in this fight because I am neither a fan of Chelsea nor Arsenal, but it will be a great celebration and I think his participation can only make it shine brighter.”