The Warm-Up: Football is an Equal Game… unless you’re Armenian
The Warm-Up isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Today, it tackles the sad case of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
WEDNESDAY’S BIG STORIES
Bak(u) in your box, UEFA
It’s 2030. There’s serious unrest in Olivenza, a town planted on the disputed Spain-Portugal border. Relations between the countries have soured and citizens are being advised to avoid the other country due to safety concerns.
There’s one problem. The final is scheduled to be played in Madrid, leaving Ronaldo with a difficult decision. Should he risk his safety for a game of football? Sure, it'll probably be fine, but is it worth the gamble? Fortunately, UEFA realise the ridiculousness of the situation and move the final to another country. Ronaldo plays and proves the difference. Juve's 34-year wait for European glory is over.
Back in 2019 and it's a different story. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will miss Arsenal's Europa League final against Chelsea after deciding it's unsafe to make the trip to Baku. The Warm-Up won't pretend to know the complexities of Armenia's relationship (or lack of) with Azerbaijan – a conflict centring around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region – and will only comment that it's desperately sad that a footballer feels trapped by politics.
Of course, Mkhitaryan's status as an above-average-but-not-outstanding player means UEFA will not entertain the idea of moving the game. So much for their Equal Game campaign: "Everyone should be able to enjoy football. No matter who you are, where you’re from or how you play."
Still, we could just about understand their logic if this was an isolated incident. But this final has been a disaster for a long, long time.
The airport? Can't cope with people. The location? More than 2,000 miles away from any club with a realistic shot of reaching the final – and nearly 3,000 from the two that did. The government? Chalking up "an appalling human rights record" according to the Human Rights Watch, while numerous critics have been wrongfully imprisoned.
"I struggle to find the words about how strongly I feel," said Arsenal’s managing director Vinai Venkatesham. "We have a situation that is completely unacceptable. It is not our decision or Henrikh’s but one we made together. We don’t feel he can travel to a major European final and that’s extraordinarily sad. He has had that opportunity taken away from him, one that is a rare opportunity for any player.
"We’re losing the opportunity of having him to help us win a major trophy,” he added. “It’s an extraordinary shame. All we can really do is make our point very clearly to UEFA. After the final we will explain to them why it’s unacceptable and must avoid it happening to Arsenal or any other club ever again."
Anyone who thinks UEFA: Defending Baku is disappointing won't be pleased to hear that a sequel has been commissioned, with Euro 2020 set to descend on Azerbaijan for four games next summer.
So is there any ray of light to come out of this furore? Sort of. At least it's got Piers Morgan into a tizzy.
The Warm-Up was about to pen a glorious character assassination of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer… only to realise that he’s making THE RIGHT DECISION by promoting Ashley Young to full-time Manchester United captain (if reports/rumours/crying tweets are to be believed).
There’s genuinely no-one else. You can’t just sign a captain – imagine the dressing room tears when Kalidou Koulibaly is given the armband after arriving for £600 million from Napoli in the summer. It’s over, Manchester United. When a 33-year-old, basking in his most hopeless season as a professional, is the outstanding candidate to lead your team, it’s time to accept you’re the new Liverpool.
It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone who gets paid to kick a football around all day – particularly those on £600,000 a week and at (arguably) the world’s biggest club. But we’re going to make an exception. What’s your sob story, Gareth Bale?
"We’re kind of just robots. We’re told where to be, when to be there, what time we have to eat, what time we have to go to the coach. It’s kind of like you lose your life in a way. You’re kind of just told what to do… When you’re a kid you have no thoughts in your mind, you can just enjoy with your friends, having a laugh. When you come to the elite level there’s all sorts of pressures, there’s expectations, there’s people talking negatively all the time and yeah, it loses that childlike feeling."
Nope, we’d still rather have the £600,000 thanks.
The Welshman was speaking on State of Play, a new documentary film from BT Sport
HEROES & ZEROES
Hero: Tottenham Academy
A gaggle of Tottenham Academy players have postponed their summer holidays to Malia, Zante and Magaluf (we presume Lads on Tour hasn't changed in the last decade) to help the senior side prepare for the Champions League final. A nice gesture when you consider they have 0.01% chance of making the trip to Madrid.
Zero: Petr Cech
Look, Petr. We know you’re excited about your new director role with Chelsea, but probably best you wait until after the Europa League final against, erm, Chelsea before letting this one leak…
IN THE CHANNELS
The Warm-Up was once told it had an erotic voice, but it has nothing on this bloke.
At risk of starting a diplomatic incident, here's the Armenian national anthem in solidarity with Mkhitaryan. Bit of a banger.
"Every Sunday morning until I was 15, I went to an Armenian school held in a west London high school near where I grew up. Among the memories of boredom, grappling with an eccentric alphabet that came to its scholar in a dream, and excessive catering of barbecued lamb, I remember a map each teacher would unfurl every year. It was a map of the Caucasus. After showing us how Armenia had been consistently shrunk over the centuries of empire, pogroms and genocide (happy Sunday!), they’d invariably point out Artsakh – a region within one of Armenia’s unfortunate selection of big-boy neighbours, Azerbaijan."
The Europa League final is a week away! Oh, you meant today? Nothing then.
Jack Lang is back from vacation in Ayia Napa, sporting a new 'Warm-Up Till I Die' tattoo on his thigh. He's here tomorrow, ink poisoning permitting.