FOOTBALL

OPINION: UEFA ‘for the fans’

For many people, UEFA is the source of unbridled joy.

Whether it’s the unforgettable memories created in the Champions League, Europa League or the Euros, the European football governing body has brought great moments to the continent.

Later this month, however, UEFA will be the source of numerous fans’ despair, even if they win their respective competitions.

The Situation

The reason for this is a simple location, the Olympic Stadium in Baku,
Azerbaijan. That will be the stage for the all-English Europa League Final on May 29th between Arsenal and Chelsea.

Sitting so far in Eastern Europe that it borders Western Asia, a day that should be nothing but a dream for both sets of fans could be a nightmare.

Firstly, being 2,861.9 miles away from London there are no direct flights into Baku, meaning fans will have to travel via Turkey, Syria and other countries in the area.

Although fans will be willing to take the six-hour, incredibly expensive flight, just 6,000 will be allowed into the stadium for each team. With the stadium’s capacity currently 68,000 that has caused outrage from the wider football community as well as Arsenal and Chelsea fans.

UEFA gave an explanation in a statement last week but there reasoning still seems to be weak.

They said: “Based on UEFA’s recent experience with UEFA Europa League finals and the UEFA Super Cup in comparable venues the number of finalists ‘ supporters requesting tickets for a UEFA Europa League final can vary greatly from club to club. Of course, it is impossible to predict in advance which clubs will reach the final while the venue has to be chosen around two years in advance.

Taking into consideration the above and most importantly 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 (this includes finalists, fans and general public), with Baku as the main hub. Offering more tickets to fans of the participating teams, without any guarantee that they would be able to arrange suitable travel to reach Baku, was therefore not a responsible option.

Based on these circumstances, for this year’s UEFA Europa League final in Baku, 6,000 tickets have been made available to each of the finalists. UEFA remains in close contact with the finalists regarding the travel arrangements of their supporters and any other operational aspects with regards to the final.”

Safety first?

Another big reason why UEFA are coming under fire is because of the safety risks of holding the final in Baku.

Surprisingly, they cannot guarantee the safety of both players and fans alike. Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhirtyan still awaits whether he can enter the country.

On May 10th an Arsenal spokesman said: “We are seeking guarantees from Uefa that it will be safe for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to travel to Baku for the Europa League final, which both Arsenal and Micki require for him to be included within our squad.

“Acceptable guarantees have not been received yet, and we hope that Uefa will be able to supply these promptly.

“We are of course hugely concerned that the location of the final could lead to Micki not being able to play in a European final.”

Guaranteeing player and fan safety should be UEFA’s priority, yet it seems like the commercialization of football as taken that place.

The simple solution would be to change the location of the final but it’s incredibly unlikely that will happen.

Arsenal have already played at Baku’s Olympic Stadium, in a 3-0 win over Qarabag. But yet again, in the game, Mkhitaryan was left home over concerns for his safety.

Why this is happening again is beyond me and should have been resolved the first time around.

Summary

As a tournament, the Europa League’s importance has only risen in the last couple of years. This is because the winner is granted a place in the following season’s Champions League.

For Chelsea, having finished in the top four, the game now carries less importance that it would have if they didn’t.

For Arsenal, however, this is a make or break game which could be effected by external factors. With a place in the Champions League on the line there shouldn’t be this many distractions for the club but whether it makes a difference, we will see on May 29th.

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