The Europa League Final between Chelsea and Arsenal on May 29th is presenting unprecedented challenges to supporters who wish to be there in the hope of witnessing Chelsea winning another European trophy.
It is clear that, whilst a pleasant place to visit for a group stage match, Baku is a totally unsuitable location for a major European final. The combination of cost, complexity in regard to travel arrangements and time off work has massively reduced the travelling support, including those who loyally and ordinarily go to all home, away and European matches.
None of this is the fault of the people of Baku. The blame lies predominantly with UEFA who, yet again, re-affirm their contempt for match going supporters.
Due to UEFA’s choice of Baku, the supporters who do manage to make the trip face a late finish of the game (potentially after 01.30 if it goes to extra-time and penalties) causing potential problems for travelling supporters returning to hotels or travel hubs. But before supporters get this far, the issues faced in actually getting there are insurmountable for many.
These issues are exacerbated by the inadequacy of airports in terms of handling large numbers of extra flights, the lack of direct flights and high cost of indirect ones and the complexity of journeys from Tbilisi or Kiev by overnight train or minibus for example.
With the difficulties supporters face in getting to Baku, it might not seem unreasonable that UEFA have only allocated 6,000 tickets to both Chelsea and Arsenal out of a capacity of 68,000. However, this is potentially a worrying trend for future seasons. UEFA notoriously provide an inadequate allocation for supporters in finals, instead favouring the ‘UEFA family’ and may use the understandable but likely unsold allocation by both clubs as a barometer for future allocations.
In addition, the political situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia means that Arsenal player and Armenia Captain, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, feels unsafe to visit the country and now misses out on the chance to play in the biggest game of his career. There have also been reported cases of supporters of Armenian extraction who have been refused a visa to enter Azerbaijan. Choosing a location where there are issues with political conflicts and human rights abuses makes a mockery of UEFA’s claims of inclusivity.
On the subject of inclusivity, UEFA and the stadium’s provision of facilities for disabled supporters is inadequate. The sightlines for some of the wheelchair spaces in the stadium are compromised by poor pitch visibility. In Baku itself, there is limited accommodation and infrastructure accessible to disabled supporters. Awarding a final to a City and Stadium which cannot adequately provide for disabled supporters due to poor views and inaccessibility is a damning indictment of UEFA’s #equalgame campaign.
Rather than arrogantly pushing back on recent criticism, once both English clubs had reached the Quarter Finals, surely a round table discussion between UEFA, Azerbaijan and the two clubs on details, logistics and airline capacity should have taken place. Better still, a fall-back venue could and should have been identified.
We are extremely disappointed that Chelsea FC have been unable or unwilling to help Chelsea supporters overcome the travel, expense and logistics in order for them to support the team in a European final. This, in spite of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust’s suggestions as to how the club could offer material help to supporters wishing to go to Baku.
We suggested providing a subsidy for travelling supporters, having calculated the negligible financial impact on the club given the revenue earned from the competition this season. This is pertinent when considering that Chelsea FC’s travel partner, Thomas Cook, is charging an extortionate £979 for the official package for the day trip to Baku. Furthermore, the late notice of the UK airport to be used for both departure and return means it is hard for travellers to plan.
The price for Thomas Cook’s package is more expensive than most season tickets, and again it is disappointing that the club did not feel they could offer supporters an extension for season ticket renewals, as they have done before when Chelsea supporters faced additional expense due to the club’s participation in a European final. Tottenham Hotspur for example have extended their season ticket renewals to help supporters cash flow.
Chelsea is the only club of the four English European finalists insisting all of their supporters collect their tickets from a designated ticket pick-up location, even though tickets are clearly freely available. To compound things, supporters cannot take advantage of the free travel in Baku until they have their match ticket. Surely Chelsea could have re-thought their policy in lieu of the exceptional circumstances of the trip to Baku?
The lack of a statement from Chelsea FC is also disappointing. Arsenal FC, issued a statement expressing frustration and disappointment on behalf of their supporters; acknowledging the unsuitability of the venue, the challenges faced by supporters travelling to Baku and the need to ensure more care by UEFA in future venue selection. While this may not make any difference to UEFA’s immediate decision making, at the very least it sent out a message to their supporters that they were concerned about the difficulties they face and were on their side.
A similar statement from Chelsea would have engendered some much-needed goodwill from the supporters.
And, given the large numbers of Chelsea supporters who are extremely disappointed in not being able to get to Baku to support the team, we believe that Chelsea FC have missed a great opportunity to benefit from another gesture of goodwill by facilitating a ‘live broadcast’ or ‘beam back’ of the match, at Stamford Bridge or another suitable venue.
This would have been very well received and while never able to replace the experience of being in Baku, it might have mitigated some of the disappointment.