Europa League final stadium farce proves UEFA doesn't care about football fans
Cup finals should be a celebration - not a cynical attempt to cash in on football's popularity in 'unexploited markets'
When it was announced that the 2019 Europa League final would be played in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, there was a widespread shrug from most people - journalists and fans included.
An odd choice for a major European final? Yes, but surely UEFA - even UEFA - would ensure that the infrastructure was up to scratch to cope with the increased level of tourism from fans travelling to the city for the final.
Fans have grown accustomed to the cynical view and approach undertaken by the European football governing body but even they wouldn't sabotage their second biggest tournament purely to expand the world's most popular sport a little bit further.
Then the competition edged closer and it became clear that two of London's biggest clubs - Arsenal and Chelsea - would likely meet each other in the final. If there were going to be any capacity problems with Baku's Heydar Aliyev International Airport then surely the fact that most fans would be coming from the same city would alleviate them.
As the day grew nearer though it became clear that it didn't matter where people were coming from, Baku would not be able to cope with the numbers expected.
One would assume that this would have been one of the first boxes that needed to be ticked when UEFA selected the host for this match, but nonetheless Baku won out over Sevilla and Istanbul - two enormously popular holiday destinations with proven infrastructures for dealing with tourists - when it came to choosing the location for the final in 2017.
Even as recently as earlier this year, UEFA stated Baku's airport would fare just fine.
Here's exactly what they said on the subject in their Evaluation Report:
"Due to its geographical location, most foreign spectators would arrive in Baku by air, resulting in high demand for flights. Heydar Aliyev International Airport is the only international airport within easy reach of Baku. The in and outbound airport capacity meets the requirements."
Perhaps this was the reasoning behind UEFA's decision to allocate only 12,000 tickets between both sets of fans for a stadium with a capacity of almost 69,000.
Perhaps they realised that if they allocated any more than Baku simply would not be able to cope. Or perhaps they just didn't give a shit and, despite being told that the city was not infra-structurally prepared for thousands upon thousands of football fans, decided to choose it anyway.
They may well have breathed a sigh of relief when it emerged that both clubs had returned half of their combined allocation due to lack of interest, combined with Arsenal fans' anger at the situation surrounding Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan - who deemed it unsafe to travel to a country that still bristles with hatred over 1998's Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the two countries.
All of these problems point to the fact that the game should not have been held in Baku, but nothing was going to stop it once it was chosen, look at Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 as examples of this.
When the game arrived, like with Russia last year, there was a slight pause in the negativity.
'Let's just see what it's like - maybe it will actually turn out alright?' people briefly thought, but this was naive wishful thinking.
Once the cameras appeared as the match kicked off - focused on what appeared to be a pitch - it was clear that the cherry on top of this cake of UEFA incompetence was also made of shit.
The Olympic Stadium - a beautiful arena - was half full, evidence of both the lack of interest in the game and the ill will towards the decision to host it there.
Already ridiculous this final is being staged in Baku, but for fans to then have a view like this miles from the pitch is shameful. UEFA are actively mocking these fans... pic.twitter.com/MyQVGWfPT5
— Sam Pilger (@sampilger) May 29, 2019
This was combined with the fact that - for those in attendance - there was an enormous running track between themselves and the action on the pitch. In some areas of the stadium the pitch was barely perceptible.
For those in the comfort of their own homes, the view wasn't much better, with the camera fixed to a position so high that it saw comparisons to FIFA co-op and Sensible Soccer.
All of this combined into what was an atmosphere more akin to a Premier League Asia Trophy game, or a poorly attended International Champions Cup match in Beijing.
It also meant that a 4-1 victory for Chelsea over Arsenal was the subplot to what should have been an immense occasion.
Instead, the entire spectacle was an insult to football supporters. It was soulless, lifeless and devoid of passion, just like the governing body that organised it.