The authorities in Baku signaled on Monday that they will not deport or arrest Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Armenia’s most famous football player, if he arrives in Azerbaijan to play in his German club’s upcoming match against an Azerbaijani team.
Mkhitaryan’s Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s strongest sides, and Azerbaijan’s Qabala were last week drawn together in Group C of the UEFA Europa League, a major club soccer tournament. The first of the two games between them is scheduled to be played in Azerbaijan on October 22.
Mkhitaryan’s participation in that fixture has been a subject of intense media speculation due to the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s resulting reluctance to let Armenians visit the country for international events. An Azerbaijani media outlet suggested last week that the 26-year attacking midfielder could not only be denied a visa but also arrested at Baku airport because of an “illegal” trip to Karabakh in 2011. Some Qabala officials also hinted at such a possibility in their public comments.
The speculation prompted concern from Borussia, which signed Mkhitaryan from Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013 for a club record $32 million. "We hope this does not happen. Henrikh is a super important player for us with his brilliant performances in recent weeks," a Borussia spokesman told Germany’s Sport1 TV channel, according to the AFP news agency.
Mkhitaryan, who is hugely popular in Armenia, himself has not commented yet. He has been in impressive form lately, scoring eight goals in seven Borussia victories so far this season.
UEFA Secretary General Gianni Infantino reportedly said on Friday that European football’s governing body will do its best to ensure that the Armenian soccer star is able to play in his country’s arch-foe.
In its first official statement on the issue, the Azerbaijani government implied on Monday that it will not impede Mkhitaryan’s arrival in Azerbaijan. “One of the features of football is that it’s a team game … Azerbaijan will be visited by a team, Borussia Dortmund, rather than certain individuals,” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Baku said, according to Azerbaijani news agencies.
The official, Hikmet Hajiyev, also noted in that regard that more than 100 athletes from Armenia as well as ethnic Armenians competing for other nations participated in international sporting competitions held in Baku in the last five years. “Sports must not be used for political purposes,” he said.
“As for the list of undesirable persons, each case is viewed on an individual basis,” added Hajiyev. He referred to an official Azerbaijani list of foreigners who are banned from visiting Azerbaijan because of having travelled to Karabakh from Armenia without Baku’s permission. The list is not known to include Armenian nationals.
Hajiyev’s statement came several hours after Armenia’s government blamed official Baku for the speculation about Mkhitaryan’s potential troubles in Azerbaijan. “This ridiculous approach by the Azerbaijani side is not news because no individual with an Armenian surname is allowed to visit Azerbaijan, which totally fits into Armenophobic propaganda officially spread in that country,” Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan charged in written comments.