The Europa League Final has spiraled into an embarrassment that is not befitting of Europe’s second largest international competition. UEFA’s decision to bring the Final to the city of Baku in Azerbaijan has left supporters of both Chelsea and Arsenal in doubt as to their possible attendance. In addition, political tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia could force Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan to miss the momentous occasion. This must be the last time UEFA is so tone deaf in its decision making.
UEFA president, Michel Platini, made it a mission to expand the exposure of both the Champions League and the Europa League across Europe. He also expressed his desire to turn the occasions into “festivals” of sort that mimics the World Cup except on a much smaller scale. The idea itself is rational. It is always in the best interest of UEFA to reach as big of an audience as possible by bringing big venues to areas that do not often have teams competing in the latter stages of the competitions. The relatively new grading scale of stadium quality ensures that the Finals will be held where modern security measurements are up to standard and seating capacity is large enough to hold large crowds. The inclusion of fan zones strives to bring in locals, that may otherwise be unable to attend the game live, to central city areas to enjoy the spectacle amongst other passionate sporting fans. Unfortunately, while the idea is well intentioned, its implementation has become problematic for the 2019 Europa League Final.
Chelsea and Arsenal were both allocated 6000 tickets each in a stadium that holds over 68,000. An allocation of a little over 17% of the total capacity for the two clubs in attendance is simply inexcusable. Further more, citizens of Baku might have difficulty in ascertaining tickets due to the steep price of admission, and may instead opt for other alternatives for viewership. The atmosphere of such occasions are heavily dependent upon the attendance of its supporters. Fans who will be among the many that do not receive a ticket through the club will be forced to dole out a significant amount of money to fund a trip that is plagued by transportation issues. Baku is no stranger to hosting venues, however, with the popular Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which began running back in 2016. Yet, the ambitions made clear by UEFA are not matched by the realistic capabilities of the selected destination.
A recent rumor has been posited that Arsenal and Chelsea may actually only utilize 3000 tickets each and return the remaining to UEFA. Giorgio Marchetti, who is the competition director for UEFA, responded to the backlash with an apology that made little to no logistical sense. He stated,
“An all-English final played by two London teams was not a very predictable event at the time of the appointment.”
This statement is misinformed since Chelsea and Arsenal were favorites to go far in the Europa League competition, and the inclusion of other strong Western European contenders such as Napoli, Bayern Leverkusen, and Valencia would have required supporters to travel extremely long distances. With all due respect, Azerbaijan is on the outskirts of Europe’s sphere of influence and the country is not a member of the European Union, which would help alleviate transportation difficulties. However, travel and ticket allocation concerns are not the only issue that is already garnering unwanted attention to the controversial venue.
The lack of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan due to the ethnic conflict, which is referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, highlights a significant concern about the prospects of analyzing future venues. One could certainly not alleviate all concerns pertaining to political strife, but Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record coupled with its relationship among its international counterparts is cause for concern. Arsenal’s attacking midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is an Armenian and was already forced to miss the away match against Azerbaijani side, Qarabag FK. The potential absence of such an important figure, who could make all the difference in a pivotal game for a club seeking to return to the Champions League, represents the poor consideration of a country’s political controversies.
Arsenal and Chelsea might be forced to play the Europa League Final inside a stadium that is not at full capacity. What’s worse is that there is very little transparency about the selection of the venues for the Champions League and Europa League Finals. With the recent track record of abuse of power by FIFA, some might wonder if it has spread to UEFA. Either way, a major international competition should not be marred by such turbulence in the lead up to what should be an exciting occasion. Sports, and soccer in particular, is a form of escapism for fans that simultaneously unites all for the love of the game. Let’s just hope that the product on the pitch lives up to the level that it should produce.