Arsenal were ‘too scared’ to bring Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Azerbaijan to face 60,000 local fans, according to FK Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov.
Speaking ahead of the sides’ Europa League meeting in Baku on Thursday, the Qarabag number one suggested that the decision to leave out the Armenian was down to the reception he would likely have received from a hostile crowd in the Azerbaijan capital.
Mkhitaryan was left out of Borussia Dortmund’s squad to face Azeri side Qabala in 2015 owing to ongoing tensions between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh mountains, from where Qarabag originally hail.
“I didn't want politics to interrupt the sport but we could not do anything on this issue,” said Gurbanov, who also manages the Azerbaijan national team. “Arsenal tried to save this player but it is not a matter for us if he is coming or not.
“If Henrikh Mkhitaryan would come to Azerbaijan it is not the first time and until now a lot of Armenian sportsman came to Azerbaijan but it is the choice of Arsenal that they didn't send.
“Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn't send Mkhitaryan.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a state of war since 1988, though fighting has largely stopped since a 1994 ceasefire. Azerbaijan forbids citizens of Armenia from entering the country, although special dispensation is often provided. UEFA had confirmed that Mkhitaryan would have been granted a visa if necessary, but Arsenal chose to leave the player behind in London.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery has overseen a winning start to the club’s Europa League campaign as he seeks to restore the Gunners’ reputation in Europe, dispatching Vorskla of Ukraine 4-2 in their opening game.
“My work is football,” he said of the diplomatic stand-off regarding Mkhitaryan. “I respect each person, I respect each people, I respect each culture, I respect each country.
"But I don’t know each situation in every country. For me, he cannot play tomorrow. There is respect for Mkhi and respect for you. Today we are here with the opportunity to play well.”