While UEFA forbade messages of support by Arsenal players for absent midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Gunners could still find a way to honor their Armenian teammate in tonight’s Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku.
Armenia native Mkhitaryan announced he would not travel with his teammates to the Azerbaijan capital due to the volatile relationship between the two nations raising concerns over the 30-year-old’s safety, thus depriving Unai Emery’s team of one of their star players ahead of the all-London final at Baku Olympic Stadium.
READ MORE: UEFA block Mkhitaryan tribute as Arsenal teammates label his Europa League Final absence ‘a scandal’
UEFA moved to block Arsenal from conducting their warm-up in shirts bearing the player’s image in a message of support, insisting “all kit worn by the players – in warm-ups, during the match and during post-match celebrations” must be officially approved beforehand.
However, UEFA could be powerless to stop Arsenal players from celebrating a goal should they score in Baku and dedicating it to ‘Micki’ by way of a subtler, more personal message.
Variations were put forward after a video on Tuesday emerged of Arsenal fans wearing shirts with Mikhitaryan’s name and number seven printed on the back being apparently harassed by over-zealous police in Baku, that seemed to stem from a UEFA warnings about flaunting their support for the Armenian, who scored in and won the 2017 Europa League final when with Manchester United.
The footage was met with an angry reaction online, including from Gunners fan Piers Morgan and ex-professional Gary Lineker, which saw the two social media sparring partners agree on something for a welcome change.
Both offered their suggestions for support from Arsenal players and fans, with Morgan proposing “every Arsenal fan should wear a [Mkhitaryan] shirt tonight [and] constantly chant his name. Don’t let these anti-Armenian racists win.”
Lineker urged “every player don a Mkhitaryan shirt for the trophy presentation”, which, despite its certain poetic and aesthetic qualities, would almost certainly be ruled out by UEFA’s laws on post-celebration attire.
One Arsenal player who is no stranger to celebrations with such an accent is Granit Xhaka. During last summer’s Russia 2018 World Cup, he and teammate Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated their goals for Switzerland against Serbia by making signs of Albania’s double-headed eagle in a nod to their Kosovan heritage.
Both players escaped a ban from FIFA, instead being levied with a £7,600 ($9,600) fine each for their gesture, which carries a much stronger political subtext than the issue of Mkhitaryan.
More recently, Juventus winger Cristiano Ronaldo was given a €20,000 ($22,275) fine for his ‘cajones’ celebration towards Atletico Madrid fans during their Champions League tie in March, suggesting Arsenal players may not have that much to lose should they decide to honor Mkhitaryan personally.
Whatever the outcome, salvaging any good press for the Baku final seems a lost cause for UEFA. Mkhitaryan’s safety fears followed complaints about 6,000 tickets allocated to either side for a stadium that has a full capacity of 68,700. Over half of those have ironically been returned by fans disillusioned by travel expenses, distance, and a bitter taste left in the mouth over the issue involving one of their star players.
Should any player were to make a gesture, however small, in support of their teammate, it would certainly be two fingers to the circumstances that led to his predicament.