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21 May 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:14am

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Azerbaijan, and having an Armenian surname

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.

It’s a slice of mountainous territory known to the world as Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh is the old Armenian name) and is disputed by the two countries. It’s a conflict with historic roots, but Soviet divide-and-rule machinations ensured it’s the tinderbox it is today.

In practice, it’s Armenian. The population is 95 per cent ethnic Armenian and it has strong ties to Armenia (it uses the same currency, for example). It’s a self-declared republic, but de jure part of Azerbaijan. War followed its declaration of independence in 1991, and skirmishes continue despite a ceasefire in 1994. In the meantime, Azerbaijan tries to erase Armenian cultural heritage – from destroying churches to tracking down citizens who dared vote for Armenia in Eurovision.

This limbo means no diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan – an elaborate way for saying they are technically at war. I remember being taught that, because of this, even if you had a British passport but an Armenian name, you couldn’t get into Azerbaijan.

At the time it felt a bit strange that just because I have “ian” at the end of my surname I could somehow be denied a trip somewhere, but it’s not like I had immediate plans to summer in Baku as a pre-teen anyway.

Plus, that little lump of land seemed very distant to a bunch of kids in Acton whose parents, like my father, hadn’t even been born in Armenia – scattered around the world as they are because of the Armenian genocide during World War One.

Now suddenly those obscure-seeming history lessons have become a reality to me. Because the London media’s kicking off about it. Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is Armenian, won’t be playing in the Europa League final against Chelsea because it’s in Azerbaijan. And visas have been denied for fans with “ian” or “yan” surnames (usually an Armenian tell, but apparently even Cornish Trevelyans don’t make it into the country).

Identification by your surname alone is poignant for Armenians. A history of oppression and sprawling diaspora means we are extra proud to be recognised as Armenian from our surviving “ian” or “yan” (even if you only made the link because of the Kardashians). And in a similar vein to modified Jewish surnames, there are Armenian families whose ancestors lopped off the ending for protection (the tennis player André Agassi, for example).

So it’s particularly galling that Uefa hasn’t managed to sort this out. Although it claims it worked with the Azeri authorities to come up with a security plan for Mkhitaryan, it’s clear from his and his family’s decision that his safety was not sufficiently guaranteed.

This is pretty obvious anyway in a rather threatening statement from Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story.

“What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

It’s a grim demonstration of football’s pact with oil money that the match is still going ahead in Baku. Surely Arsenal and Chelsea should pull out, or agree a different location for the cup final?

Or if Uefa cared equally about its member states (which include Armenia), it wouldn’t have chosen Baku in the first place – at least not until hostilities softened. If an Armenian club somehow reached the Europa League final (I know just enough about football that this is very unlikely, but bear with me), the location would’ve been impossible.

But of course, in the world of football as in…well, the world in general, Armenia and countries like it are not equal to oil-rich behemoths like Azerbaijan. The latter want to whitewash their global reputations by sloshing money into everything, and the West likes the sound of that sloshing.

Armenia, with little financial standing, is the opposite. Imagine if Mkhitaryan were a top player from another country with greater influence. If Azerbaijan had a perpetual ethnic conflict with, say, Portugal, would football’s powers-that-be allow Cristiano Ronaldo to miss a cup final?

It may be that you don’t care about the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But it should matter to everyone when football puts money and hobnobbing authoritarian regimes above the safety of a player – whatever your surname.

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