The controversy surrounding the Europa League final.

The bid to put Azerbaijan on the footballing map hasn’t gone to plan for the country’s FA as the Europa League final has caused considerable uproar, for all the wrong reasons.

September 20, 2017. The Azerbaijan FA has successfully bid to host the Europa League final at the Baku Olympic Stadium. The nation had also bid to host the Champions League final. However, it was pipped by the Spanish city of Madrid (hosted at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium). This move was expected to draw a lot of eyes to Azerbaijan. It was also expected to aid its development both in a footballing and an economic sense. But time hasn’t been kind to the tiny European country as the event has been marred by numerous setbacks, days before the game.

Seats allocation- Fans deserted

The first signs of trouble surfaced when both finalists, Arsenal and Chelsea, revealed that their fans had only been allocated 6000 and 5801 seats respectively. The remaining allocation of the 68700 seater stadium was distributed to the local organising committee, national associations, commercial partners and broadcasters, and to serve the corporate hospitality programme.

Europa League
The 68,700-seater, Baku Olympic Stadium, is set to host the all-English Europa League final this May.
Photo: Heerim

The Gunners described the allocation numbers as “disappointing” and wrote to UEFA regarding the issue.“We are in active discussions with Uefa for more tickets for our fans. But this disappointing ticket allocation obviously presents us with extreme difficulties in how we allocate tickets to you, our loyal supporters,” read the statement by Arsenal FC.

UEFA went on to apologize to both sets of fans but defended the allocation. “Taking into consideration the geographical location and logistical capacity of airports in and around the host city, it was deemed that around 15,000 spectators would be able to travel from abroad, with Baku as the main hub,” was the response.

Travel issues

The travel from England to Azerbaijan will be plagued by significant travel difficulties. It is also expected to put considerable dents in the bank accounts of travelling fans. The 5000-mile round trip is estimated to cost in excess of £1,000 per person. At the time or writing, there are no direct flights to Baku from London during the week of the final. The alternate stop-overs at Istanbul/Kiev are fairly lengthy but also limited in number.

Europa League
Both Arsenal and Chelsea fans will have their work cut out in flying to Baku and back home.
Photo: Daily Express

Henrikh Mkhitaryan pulls out

The biggest talking point is the fact that Arsenal star, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, ruled himself out of the final. The Armenian will be stepping into enemy territory as Armenia and Azerbaijan have a century-long conflict. The “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” is a territorial conflict between the two nations. It involves the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts. Both UEFA and the Azerbaijan FA have provided reasonable assurance over the safety of the player. But Mkhitaryan has, understandably, opted out of the final.

This is not the first time a player has had to withdraw due to safety and security concerns. West Ham’s Yossi Benayoun had to miss out of the club’s training camp in Dubai due to his Israeli roots. Mkhitaryan, again, had to skip the game against Qarabag [Azerbaijani side] in the Europa League group stages. Xherdan Shaqiri missing Liverpool’s game against Red Star Belgrade [Serbian team] by virtue of being a Kosovan.

Author’s Take

The way in which a game of this scale is organised is unbelievable. The match experience for a travelling fan must be as important as the experience afforded to an executive. Distancing supporters is not an advisable plan of action for a sport which prides on its global following. Allowing smaller footballing nations to take center stage is surely a positive step. But practicality should be ticked off the list before committing to such decisions.

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