On Wednesday morning I will board a flight for a mammoth odyssey that will see me cover in excess of 5,000 miles in 24 hours for a European Final in a country that is three time zones away, to which the majority of the season ticket holders at the participating clubs can’t actually get to, and for everyone but the powers that be at UEFA isn’t actually in Europe. Worse than that though, a member of Arsenal’s squad, the Armenian Henrik Mkhitaryan, has decided that due to fears over his safety, he will reluctantly stay at home. Welcome to the money-driven world of modern football!
Arsenal have played in a total of five European finals in my lifetime and six in their entire history including the two-legged Fairs Cup Final before my time. I was merely seven years old when Brady and Rix missed their penalties in Brussels in 1980, a poor student with only just about enough money to feed myself let alone travel to Copenhagen or Paris in 1994 and 1995. I had no chance whatsoever of a ticket for the returns to Copenhagen in 2000 and Paris in 2006. As a result ever since becoming a season ticket holder I vowed to myself that if we were ever going to make another European final I would make sure that I did everything I could to ensure that I was there.
Having spent a year of my university life living in Marseille, Lyon against L’OM last season would have been absolutely perfect but Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa and Atletico Madrid’s broader European experience and technical superiority put paid to that dream.
With Arsenal exiled in the Europa League for another season this season, I lived in hope that we could continue to operate as a bigger fish in a smaller pond and go that step further this year and reach the final in the exotic sounding Baku. As a selected venue for a showpiece European final and a host city for Euro 2020 surely it would offer the perfect venue for an experience of a football-watching lifetime!
As Arsenal powered by the indomitable, on the evening at least, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang swept past Valencia in the second leg of the semi-final, finally I felt I was in with a chance of realising the vow that I had made to myself all those years ago, that one day I would get to see my team in a European Final.
Then reality struck. The news came that each club would be allocated just 6,000 tickets, not because of a lack of capacity in the stadium, but because the airport couldn’t cope with any more travelling fans. To put that into context that is just over 20% of the tickets that are allocated to the participating teams in the FA Cup Final, and anyone who has tried to get a ticket for any of Arsenal’s last three appearances in our domestic final will know how difficult that is. Even allowing for people not wanting or being able to travel, that was it, the dream was over for another season and I would be watching it at home.
However on the day that tickets went on sale to fans with sufficient away credits, it soon became apparent that the demand wasn’t there. Thomas Cook were offering charter flights at nearly a grand a pop for a 5,000 mile plus day trip and any other flight options were north of £1,400 and involved at least one stopover approaching 10 hours. So now I really did have a chance of a ticket, the logistics and staggering expense saw me umming and aahing before eventually ruling it out and cursing UEFA for shattering my dream.
When I relayed my decision to Mrs Football Nerd she couldn’t believe it, a self-confessed football obsessive had decided to not go to a European Final featuring his beloved team because it would be incredibly expensive and involve a long journey, this wasn’t the man she had married! There was only one option and she dragged me off to the pub to talk some sense into me!
Knowing deep down in my heart of hearts that she was right and that if I did make myself miss out I would regret it for the rest of my life, I found myself firing up the Ipad and getting myself booked up before I could talk myself out of it again.
Even though my own hopeless football obsession has forced me to be one of the relatively few supporters foolish enough to decide to go, that doesn’t make the decision to hold a showpiece European football in such a wholly inappropriate venue any more justifiable.
The decision to play the game in a country with no football track record whatsoever is bad enough but the fact that Azerbaijan routinely refuses entry at its borders to Armenian nationals and that one of the participating teams’ players has decided to withdraw from the squad due fears over his safety is beyond scandalous.
Make no mistake the only reason this final is being playing in this city is purely and utterly to do with money and money alone. A publicity coup for a country desperately trying to use sporting and other high-profile events to polish its somewhat tarnished global human rights reputation.
Rather contrary to their intentions however, the fact that getting there has proven so difficult and expensive for fans of the competing teams that reportedly Arsenal will return 2,500 and Chelsea 4,000 of their paltry ticket allocations, and that only 23,000 tickets having been sold locally, has made the selection of venue backfire on UEFA. Surely their money-driven decision wasn’t for the final to be played out in front of a half-empty stadium.
Embarrassing as that situation will be for European football’s governing body, is there any real hope that they will make the dramatic late U-turn as being demanded by a petition from Arsenal fans to change the venue, or even to do things differently in the future? I wouldn’t hold my breath; this is after all the same organisation that insisted on ‘playing’ the 1985 European Cup Final after the horrifying and tragic events that unfolded before the match at Heysel.