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That Pep Guardiola is a very nice chap. A very, very nice chap. Alas, his immense wages and the building of his near-invincible Manchester City football team have been made possible by Abu Dhabi—an emirate that is not big on human rights. Not big at all. Would one be able to fill “City’s” Etihad Stadium with its repressed migrant workers? Only if you allowed them to support the other team.
Russia’s 2018 Fifa football world cup was a resounding success. And a timely public relations win for Vladimir Putin. As for Russia’s human rights record and democratic deficit, how long have you got?
Then there’s Turkmenistan. Yes, remote, hardly heard of Turkmenistan, basket case extraordinaire that last month replaced North Korea in bottom place on the Reporters sans frontières (RSF, or Reporters Without Borders) 2019 World Press Freedom Index. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov struggles to feed his people, yet in 2017 Turkmenistan hosted the multi-billion-dollar 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (complete with the commissioning of a giant $2.5bn falcon-shaped airport) and unveiled an 18-hole golf course designed by golf great Jack Nicklaus’ global design firm (hardly anyone plays golf in Turkmenistan).
Sportswashing is all the rage
The point is, sportswashing is all the rage. And has been for many years. So why all the hoo-ha over the fact that tonight (May 29) Azerbaijan (a country with a human rights record to make your blood freeze) will have the privilege of hosting the Uefa Europa League final between London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea?
Well, that’s simple. Azerbaijan’s hopes of sportswashing lots of that human rights unpleasantness away by putting on the spectacle were dashed when Arsenal made the final, for the Arsenal squad includes one Henrik Mkhitaryan, a star midfielder from Azerbaijan’s neighbour Armenia. For three decades, Azerbaijan and Armenia have failed to resolve their conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway territory and the enmity runs deep.
Baku has protested that Mkhitaryan was welcome to play the match and would have been ringed by exceptional security but when you see those video clips on Twitter of Arsenal fans wandering Baku in their Mkhitaryan football shirts, earning the menacing attention of the Baku police, you can only sympathise with Mkhitaryan’s decision not to take himself and his family and friends to the Azerbaijani capital.
Last week, Amnesty International called on fans attending the final to consider how “all too often, governments are using high-profile sporting competitions to distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations, to instead project an image of openness. This couldn’t be further from the truth with the current administration, and the Arsenal-Chelsea clash is just the latest reminder of this”.
Sportswashing then, as said, is nothing new, and it’s plain for all to see that its enablers such as Fifa and Uefa, with their eye on the bottom line, don’t really give a hoot. Europe's football administrators just got caught out this time by the coincidental Mkhitaryan factor.
Let’s see how much (or rather how little) of a rumpus there is in the build-up to the 2020 European Championship—four games of the tournament are set to take place in Baku.
Reflections from our correspondents on the ground in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
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