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25 May, 2019 12:43

'If it was Messi UEFA would move the final!' Arsenal Fan TV Robbie on 'disgraceful' Mkhitaryan issue

'If it was Messi UEFA would move the final!' Arsenal Fan TV Robbie on 'disgraceful' Mkhitaryan issue

Arsenal Fan TV's Robbie Lyle says UEFA have scored an "own goal" with the "disgraceful" decision to host the Europa League final in Baku, denying Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan the chance to play due to safety fears.

Arsenal face off against Premier League rivals Chelsea on May 29 in the Azerbaijani capital in the first of football's two big European finals, but will be without one of their key players in Mkhitaryan. The 30-year-old has chosen not to travel with the side due to security concerns stemming from fractious relations between Azerbaijan and his home country, largely down to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which relates to an ongoing land dispute in the North Caucasus region.

Mkhitaryan's enforced absence has been debated in the House of Commons, where it was labelled "a deeply ugly side to the beautiful game," and gave grounds for fans to call for UEFA to move the final venue, claiming the predicament is at odds with the organization's inclusion and diversity policy.

Also on rt.com Henri-KO: Arsenal confirm Mkhitaryan to miss Europa League final over safety concerns in Azerbaijan

Robbie Lyle, the face of Arsenal Fan TV, a media platform "by fans for fans to give a voice to all," says the issue is a "disgrace" and claims that if football superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi were similarly affected, UEFA would have moved to alter the situation rather just "sweep it under the carpet."

“[UEFA] should have moved it. They should have moved it,” Robbie told RT Sport over Skype. “When you consider it’s two English clubs, you could have moved it to somewhere in England or in France. You could have move it somewhere nearer, but I’m not just saying for the fact it's two English clubs, I’m saying the fact that there’s all the logistical problems plus the security situation with Mkhitaryan - for me they should have moved it.

"And I just do not think that if this had been Cristiano Ronaldo and Azerbaijan had a problem with Portugal or if Azerbaijan had a problem with Argentina or Germany, do you think that they would be holding that final there? And we all know what the answer is - the answer is no. And it’s just because it’s a small country like Armenia that UEFA are just sweeping it under the carpet.

“How can you expect Mkhitaryan, don’t forget he is the biggest sporting star, the biggest star apart from the Kardashians, to come out of Armenia. What would it look like to all the people in this country who are not welcome in that country, [and] cannot get visas, if he went there? What would he look like? They shouldn’t be putting him in that position. I just think it’s totally wrong.”

Azerbaijani authorities countered Mkhitaryan’s decision not to travel by claiming they could ‘guarantee’ his safety during his stay. The country’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh said there was “no issue whatsoever” to prevent Mkhitaryan from traveling, going as far as to hint the move was a “political statement” from the player and expressing his disappointment in the face of Azerbaijan doing its “utmost” to ensure his well-being.

Given political messages are explicitly against ‘key UEFA values’ and described by the body’s disciplinary arm as “going against the sporting spirit,” it seems odd that its mission statement of inclusivity could be contradicted so starkly by actions from the organization itself.

Football fans, not known for being easily fooled, are much more skeptical.  

“You’re holding a final in a country that’s officially at war with another country. It’s politics and stuff like that but basically Mkhitaryan’s not really welcome is he?" Robbie says. “It’s all right for them to guarantee his safety, but if there are other Arsenal fans from Armenia, and I’ve met fans from Armenia... Now they can’t go can they, because they’re not welcome in the country. And, in general, people from Armenia are not welcome in Azerbaijan."

“I’ve heard some people over the last few days say 'oh well he should have just gone because they guaranteed that he’ll be safe'. You can never guarantee that someone’s going to be 100% safe. And number two - why should he go there when no one else in his country is welcome?

“Would an English player go there if it was a country where no English players are welcome? They wouldn’t go would they. I think again it’s another own goal by UEFA. It’s supposed to be inclusive This tournament is all about bringing people together and at the end of the day, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is not really welcome in Azerbaijan. He’s one of our star players and he’s not going to be playing in the final. And I just find it totally unacceptable that one of our best players is not going to be able to play there.

“Do you think if this was, lets just say in England, the final was being held at Wembley and we still had the Falklands War going on or something like that and we were messing around on the issue of a visa for Messi. Do you think they would be holding it at Wembley? They’d move it somewhere else.”

However, logistical worries mean many fans have struggled to find direct flights from London to the Azerbaijani capital, forcing supporters to travel through neighboring Georgia and Turkey for hugely inflated prices. With so many fundamental problems facing the Baku final, fans have been left feeling disillusioned at UEFA's decision, creating a whirlwind of bad press in England.

"UEFA have shown their colors. It’s all about money. All about money. They don’t care about fans, they don’t care about fans anyway," Robbie says.

"From holding that final there, straight away you realize that they don’t really care about fans. We’ve known it for a long time. If you ever needed evidence, this is it. And also, if you are a player from one of the smaller nations - they don’t care about you either. Basically that’s what I see here with this.

“Everything I’ve heard around the Baku final coming out of England right now - and this is a bit unfair to the people of Baku - everything about this final coming out of England now is negative. Everything. Absolutely everything.

"I’ve not heard not one fan whether Arsenal or Chelsea fans, I speak to all, I’ve not heard one of them saying anything positive about it being in Baku. And that’s how bad it is."

In further irony, UEFA have partly absolved themselves of criticism over ticket allocations; supporters initially horrified at the news only a fraction of both sides would occupy the stadium have now 'given up' on navigating cumbersome routes to the match, horror having been replaced with almost apathetic resignation that their efforts and income would be better spent elsewhere.

“When the allocation came out and we were told we were only going to get 6,000 each, us and Chelsea, fans were horrified to hear that because Arsenal could bring 200,000 to a game like that. But then when the realization started to hit that it’s so difficult to get there, then we started to realize the reason why they’ve decided to give us 6,000 tickets," Robbie explains.

Also on rt.com 'Ugly side to beautiful game': Mkhitaryan Europa League case slammed in UK Parliament

“The reason it’s so difficult to get to is, number one, there’s not enough flights so there’s only like one flight a day going out there and as you can imagine the price of those flights have all been bumped up so you can’t get a flight really to go out there for much under a thousand pounds.

“And then even if you can get out there, I’ve been speaking to some fans who have said to me ‘I’ve got a flight to go out there on the tuesday or the Monday, but the I can’t get back on a flight until the following Wednesday', because they're all gone. So you know you can’t get out there and the amount it costs is so much that a lot of fans have been put off and just sort of given up.”

Bad press in England is something UEFA will have wanted to avoid, especially as all four spots in the organization's showpiece events this season are occupied by the nation's teams, with Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur battling it out three days later in the Champions League final in Madrid.

One thing is certain: UEFA's argument to award Baku the right to host the Europa League final in an attempt to make football 'more inclusive' has unequivocally backfired, and instead alienated fans from currently its most successful member.

Also on rt.com 'It seriously needs to be looked at': Ex-Chelsea keeper Bosnich slams UEL final ticket allocation