A Footballing War Crime

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar June 5, 2019 12:51


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A Footballing War Crime

By Satish Sekar in Baku © Satish Sekar (May 28th 2019)

A Blind Eye

Henrikh Mkhitaryan chose not to come to Baku, claiming he would not be safe for the Europa League Final. It led to demands that the final be taken away from Baku. It was branded a disgrace that Mkhitaryan was not available, but he had a choice. Others did not and other Armenian sportsmen, less famous, have competed in Baku without incident.

Nevertheless, sport became a secondary victim of political aspirations. As the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) began to disintegrate ethnic rivalries and claims on land that had lain dormant during the Soviet era resurfaced – some violently.

Nagorno-Karabakh was one and it was resolved, if that was the right word in the vilest way. It had an Armenian majority for a long time, but was part of Azerbaijan – a situation that pleased nobody. As the peace disintegrated along with the Soviet Union a tragedy unfolded that culminated in self-declared independence, a state recognised by virtually nobody and an intractable diplomatic mess.

The Mkhitaryan issue is unfortunate, but there’s a far worse one that reveals football’s indifference and hypocrisy at its worst.

Shame and Disgrace

Football and UEFA’s silence, let alone failure to assist innocent victims over a far greater disgrace has been and remains utterly shameful. The way Qarabağ became the ‘Refugees’ Team’ shames football.

Their original home of Ağdam, is a ghost-town pulverised to rubble to deter Azerbaijanis returning – one of the last casualties of the war over Nagorno Karabakh. Over a quarter of a century later, the Refugees’ Team remain refugees, as do their supporters, and football’s silence over their plight condemns it.

The attack began in June, and lasted until Ağdam was captured after heavy bombardment on July 23rd 1993. Two days later a ceasefire was declared. It remains a ghost-town, a permanent reminder of the human cost. Earlier in the conflict, it had been the base of an Azeri offensive. Worse was to follow the earlier offensive by Azeris, Operation Goranboy.


The Khojaly Massacre (February 26th 1992) was on any view a beastly war crime that (not football-related), according to Azeris, left 613 civilians dead, including women and children. Many more were injured and a whole community permanently displaced. That, allegedly, was the plan – ethnic cleansing – and it was carried out.

Armenia has officially denied involvement in the atrocity, but Turkey and Azerbaijan dispute this, citing the words told to British journalist Tom de Waal by a military commander at the relevant time, Serzh Sargsyan in 2000.

“Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that stereotype.”


It was an atrocity and remains so. Sargsyan later became President of Armenia, and initiated ‘football diplomacy’ with Turkey as the nations participated in qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.

There’s been no football-related diplomatic missions over Nagorno-Karabakh, or indeed over the continuing ordeal of Azerbaijani team Qarabağ.

But, on occasion, Sargsyan’s rhetoric has been threatening. He has threatened recognition of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) while claiming they want peace, blaming Azeri President Ilham Әliev’s rhetoric for ramping up tensions. But what about his own words on Khojaly, and afterwards?

Over 27 years after the Khojaly Massacre the perpetrators not only remain at large, but their aims were achieved.

Meanwhile, Qarabağ remain refugees, supporting their early fan base, and football’s silence and inaction over the destruction of their original home in Ağdam remains deafening and hypocritical.  Qarabağ now play in a new stadium in Baku. They had been nomads for the best part of 25 years. Where was football’s concern and assistance for them, and their supporters especially in comparison to the Mkhitaryan issue?

Satish Sekar
By Satish Sekar June 5, 2019 12:51