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It is less than three months since Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s reluctant absence from the Europa League Finalrightly prompted widespread criticism of Uefa.
The Armenian decided against travelling to Azerbaijan in May due to political tensions between the two countries, triggering a wider debate about how it had come to pass that a showpiece match could take place at a venue where one player felt unsafe.
Surely it was the point of European football’s governing body to organise competitions free of such complications? And yet English football has now to face a similar uncomfortable truth: Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac, coincidentally from the same club, feel insufficiently protected to play. In England. In 2019.
Where is the outrage this time? Where is the condemnation from fans’ groups or the sport’s authorities? After all, two players are fearful not to turn up for work. Clearly, sympathy in short supply.
But by impacting the Arsenal duo and the club in this way, a dangerous precedent has been set which has potentially damaging implications.
Obviously, the dynamics are different to the Mkhitaryan case. Uefa’s decision to grant a major final to a venue that posed security problems shoehorned a sporting problem into the middle of a political one. It was avoidable, as was staging the Europa League Final at a venue it later effectively had to admit had an ill-equipped infrastructure.
The issues at the heart of the Ozil and Kolasinac situation are societal, with sporting ramifications. That difference is important — nobody could expect, say, the FA or the Premier League to be responsible for player safety in public life — but the most remarkable admission that two top-flight footballers opted to stay at home on security grounds should be much more than a footnote to the fallout from the return of our game.Anti-discrimination campaigners Kick It Out regularly point out a rise in reports of abuse online and in the stands, but never have two Premier League players been so shaken as to render themselves unavailable.
Kolasinac’s cult status grew as footage circulated of him confronting and chasing off carjackers near Golders Green after leaping out of Ozil’s Mercedes 4×4 last month.
But it has been claimed his wife, Bella, has flown to Germany in fear of her safety, both players’ families have been targeted online and Arsenal are considering the possibility the pair may have to sit out future games.
The Sun on Sunday quoted one source suggesting Kolasinac’s defiance has prompted the gang involved to double-down on their threats and partly in response, there is 24-hour security outside both players’ homes. Football cannot cure the societal ills at the root of the saga, but more unified criticism in defiance would be welcome.