In Depth

Why everyone’s talking about Baku

Uefa’s decision to host the Europa League final in Azerbaijan is criticised over tickets, travel and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s safety

When Baku was awarded the hosting rights for the 2019 Europa League final, Uefa would not have envisaged facing such a huge backlash from teams and fans two years after the selection process took place.

This year’s final sees Premier League rivals Arsenal and Chelsea go head-to-head for the Europa League trophy at the Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan’s capital on 29 May.

With just over a week before the final the focus should be on what will happen on the pitch.

But travel arrangements, ticket allocations and now the withdrawal of Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan has led to fierce criticism of Uefa, European football’s governing body.

What happened?

The backlash began earlier this month when supporters’ groups from both Arsenal and Chelsea condemned Uefa for allocating just 6,000 tickets to each club for the final at the 68,700-seater Olympic Stadium in Baku.

Uefa responded to the criticism by stating that the size of Baku’s airport meant only 15,000 fans would be able to fly in to Azerbaijan, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Arsenal Supporters’ Trust called Uefa’s treatment of fans “disgraceful” while the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust said Baku was “one of the most inaccessible cities in Europe from the UK” and “must be about the worst location there is”.

The 2019 Uefa Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea will played at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan
What was the response?

TalkSPORT reports that the clubs may only take up half of the total 12,000 allocation for the final. The cost of arranging the 5,500-mile round trip has left “disgusted” fans snubbing the game. There could be a “worrying number of empty seats” in Baku says the broadcaster.

Arsenal contacted Uefa about the travel arrangements for fans. Uefa’s competitions director Giorgio Marchetti replied: “An all-English final played by two London teams was not a very predictable event at the time of the appointment.

“This has added significant difficulties to the event logistics. We are really sorry for the problems that your [and Chelsea’s] fans are encountering trying to organise their journey to Baku.

“Our experts are keenly working on this matter with a view to help find cheaper solutions for travelling fans. We would welcome a joint effort with your club in this respect.”

Mkhitaryan to miss final

It’s not just the fans’ travel and tickets that Uefa is facing backlash for, but also the situation regarding Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Arsenal have confirmed that the Armenian midfielder will not travel for the final in Baku because of safety fears due to tensions between his country and Azerbaijan.

The Gunners have written to Uefa to express their “deep concerns” about this situation. Arsenal said in a statement: “We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.

“Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective. We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.”

The BBC reports that Mkhitaryan feared for his safety on the pitch. 

The 30-year-old is hurt to miss the game, he said: “Having considered all current options, we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad to the Europa League final. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often and I admit, it hurts a lot to miss it.”

Uefa responded: “Working alongside Arsenal FC, Uefa sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country.

“As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club.

“While the club acknowledges the efforts that Uefa and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”

The Sun called Uefa’s response “pathetic” while The Daily Telegraph’s Sam Wallace added that Uefa’s “risible” decision to give Baku the Europa League final has “betrayed fans it gets paid so well to love”.

What next?

Arsenal head to Baku without Mkhitaryan for their biggest match in years. Should the Gunners win next week they would qualify for next season’s Champions League. “I will be cheering my teammates on! Let’s bring it home Arsenal,” said the Armenian.

With Mkhitaryan and many fans staying at home there have been calls for Uefa to move the final. Arsenal have also been urged to boycott the Baku clash.

Would the host city have been changed by Uefa if Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo’s safety could not be guaranteed? That’s what many fans are saying on social media

Patrick Timmons wrote on Twitter: “If someone like Messi or Ronaldo couldn’t play in a European final because they didn’t feel safe, can you imagine the uproar? So why should it be any different in the case of Mkhitaryan? Everything about the organisation of the final has been a disgrace from Uefa.”

Alex James added: “I want Arsenal to boycott the final, don’t care about consequences. If it was Messi or Ronaldo it would be scrapped. Absolutely disgusting from Uefa.” 

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: about the final

The 2019 Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal takes place on Wednesday 29 May. Kick-off is at 8pm (BST) and the final will be shown on BT Sport 2 and live streamed for free on BT Sport’s YouTube channel.

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