A story combining sports, politics, corruption, security and logistics
The Europa League final scheduled for May 29, when two British football teams will meet at the Olympic Stadium in Baku – London Arsenal and Chelsea – will most likely be the most scandalous final in the history of the tournament.
Of course, there are purely athletic reasons for this – for the first time in the final, two star teams will converge from the homeland of football. But the main reason is football fan club scandals and political excitement around the final.
For the first time in the history of football, four English teams entered the final of two prestigious European club tournaments – the Champions League and the Europa League. The most prestigious final will be held in Madrid, where Liverpool and Tottenham will meet, and the less prestigious one in Baku.
Why is the less important final attracting more attention than the main one?
Baku received the right to host the Europa League finals in September 2017.
In addition, Baku received the right to hold four more matches of the European Championship in 2020.
Even then, there was talk of corruption in the upper echelons of the world and the European Football Federation. Soon all this was confirmed and the leaders of FIFA and UEFA, Blatter and Platini were removed from their posts.
Several years before this, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had awarded Platini with a high award of Azerbaijan – the Order Shohrat [Az. glory.]
Be that as it may, the right to host the final was obtained and no one, for the time being, challenged it.
The first problem: Baku is too far
It all started unexpectedly. The first person to show their outrage was a man who was not going to go to Baku: the Liverpool coach, German Jürgen Klopp. He complained about the high prices of hotels and for flights during the finals, but he also said:
“Baku … I don’t know what the guys who made this decision ate for breakfast when they made such a decision. I have no idea how to get there, whether there are regular flights to Baku. Decisions about the finals should be much more reasonably. This is irresponsible. I do not know how they make such decisions.”
Before we go further, one should note that Klopp is either cunning or he has a short memory. He knows the road to Baku perfectly well, because he came here as the head of his former team, Dortmund Borussia.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea and their fans know the road to Baku. Both of these teams came to Baku and played against local Karabakh, whom they beat.
Baku, indeed, is located far from London – at the other end of the European football zone. Getting here is not easy and quite expensive. But it’s just as difficult and expensive for Caucasian fans to get to London.
If all our countries are members of the same federation, in theory, we have the same rights. Let’s dream: all of a sudden the teams from Tbilisi and Baku, or from Yerevan, will get to the next final.
And the final will be somewhere in Dublin. Are we going to grumble about how expensive it is to fly?
The second problem: complex logistics and a limited number of tickets
The football club Arsenal on its official website noted the disappointment at the difficulties of traveling to Baku of its fans.
The club complains about the limited number of tickets, the difficulties of the route and other inconveniences. It is curious that another participant in the final from the same city, Chelsea, is still not complaining about anything.
Baku Olympic Stadium seats 65,000 spectators. Fans of each of the London clubs have been allocated 6,000 tickets, plus 3,000 for guests, a total of 15,000. Of course, that isn’t much. Officially, Azerbaijani officials say that Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku is capable of receiving 10,000 passengers per hour. More than 45 requests for charter flights on May 28 and 29 have already been confirmed, of which 16 flights fall in the category of business aviation, football teams will arrive on two flights, and club fans on ten flights. Also, additional flights were requested by foreign airlines such as Turkish Airlines, Air Arabia, Fly Dubai, ISRair, Jazeera Airways and others.
That is, there are no problems with transportation. For example, we can recall that at the recent Formula 1 stage, Baku received about 19,000 foreigners. In 2015, Tbilisi hosted over 20,000 spectators for the Spanish Super Cup final, with the participation of Barcelona and Seville.
Why, then, did English football fans get such a small quota?
My version is subjective: it seems to me that our authorities were a little afraid of the upcoming invasion of English football fans: as is known, they are the most ‘excitable’ in all Europe. The less of them, the calmer things will be.
Although to follow and manage 12,000 of them is already quite the feat. If our people knew that Arsenal and Chelsea would make it to the finals, they would have thought three times before submitting an application to host the event.
As a consolation: the British ambassador published a video message and welcomed the holding of the final in Baku. She added that leading British police teams will arrive in Baku this week to cooperate with their Azerbaijani colleagues.
The third and most important problem: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
I am afraid that the organizers of the finals in Baku, both local and European, initially held their fingers to the cross: don’t let Arsenal make it into the final! But it got into the final, and the question of the arrival of the captain of the Armenian national team Heinrikh Mkhitaryan, who now plays for Arsenal, is now demanding attention.
Azerbaijan is in conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, movement between citizens of the two neighboring Caucasian countries is still very difficult. Armenian athletes periodically come to Baku. The Armenian team was at European games, an Armenian boxer received a medal from the hands of President Aliyev, the chess player Aronyan published a photo against the backdrop of the Baku Maiden Tower. But football is not a boxing fight and not a chess match.
In addition, it turned out that Mkhitaryan repeatedly visited Nagorno-Karabakh and supported charitable foundations there. Local nationalists raised a wave of protest on social media with a demand not to let Henrikh into Baku. This demonstration of animosity was immediately picked up on by the Armenian media and Arsenal fans.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had the opportunity to visit Baku twice, as part of Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, but both times the club’s coaches decided not to take the risk and did not take him to Baku.
Now the final and the ticket to the Champions League for the next season are at stake. This game is very important for Arsenal.
It is not yet clear whether Mkhitaryan will come. Azerbaijan has given a guarantee of his security, but Arsenal still considers these guarantees insufficient. In any case, the decision about whether Henrikh will arrive is to be taken by the team’s coach. Mkhitaryan has not been in the best shape for a long while now – I’d leave him on the sidelines.
At the same time: if he does not come, then Arsenal will at least have something to explain away its defeat.