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Baku quiet as Europa League fans struggle with travel

By JAMES ELLINGWORTHMay 28, 2019
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A restaurant is decorated with Chelsea and Arsenal flags, in central Baku, Azerbaijan Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Supporters were arriving in the Azerbaijan capital ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final between English teams Arsenal and Chelsea. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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A restaurant is decorated with Chelsea and Arsenal flags, in central Baku, Azerbaijan Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Supporters were arriving in the Azerbaijan capital ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final between English teams Arsenal and Chelsea. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — As Arsenal and Chelsea fans scramble for flights and buses to get to the Europa League final, Baku’s streets are quiet.

On the main shopping street, only soccer-shaped plant pots indicate there’s a game on at all. Of the foreign fans scattered around the city on Tuesday, many were from Russia or southeast Asia.

Fans from London have been deterred by high travel costs and both Arsenal and Chelsea have reportedly failed to sell their full allocations of 6,000 tickets each for Wednesday’s game. That number was already unusually low for a major final in a 68,000-seat stadium.

Tickets were still on sale in shopping malls, though sellers said the cheapest tickets at 30 euros ($33.50) were sold out. Azerbaijan soccer federation spokesman Firuz Garayev said “not many” tickets were left and none were being given away for free to fill seats.

Baku has a fleet of London-style taxis, bought in bulk when Azerbaijan hosted the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, but few Brits are around to notice.

Ian and Sarah McGregor, Arsenal fans from Kent in southeastern England, are among the few fans already in Azerbaijan. To get around what Sarah McGregor called “barking” travel costs, they took a whole week off, flew through Dubai and turned the Europa League final into a family vacation.

“The people are really friendly. The food’s fantastic,” Ian McGregor said. “Can’t ask for any more, really.”

Other English fans have shelled out for official club-backed charter flights — part of a travel package costing 979 pounds ($1,240) — or are trying more roundabout methods. Azerbaijani authorities have arranged for extra buses from Tbilisi in Georgia, an eight-hour drive away, where many English fans plan to arrive on cheaper flights.

“I haven’t really had a proper night’s sleep. Had a couple hours of sleep in Tbilisi airport before I came into town,” said Arsenal fan Tommy Soames, who said he spent two days traveling to Baku from Italy via Georgia. “It’s been very tiring but I love an adventure.”

One person who won’t be at the game is Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who opted against traveling for political reasons. His native Armenia has a tense relationship with Azerbaijan.

Two Thai fans in Mkhitaryan shirts, walking with a Chelsea fan, were briefly stopped by Azerbaijan police near the seafront. It wasn’t clear whether the shirts were the reason for the stop, and they were soon allowed to leave.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region of Azerbaijan which has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. Some neighboring districts are also under the control of those ethnic Armenian forces. International efforts to settle the conflict have stalled.

Kickoff is set for 11 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) on Wednesday, ideal for Central European TV viewers but a challenge for fans to get to hotels from the stadium after the game.

Arsenal has criticized the choice of Baku and called on UEFA to prioritize traveling fans when it picks future hosts.

“The combination of cost, complexity in regard to travel arrangements and time off work has massively reduced the traveling support, including those who loyally and ordinarily go to all home, away and European matches,” Chelsea’s supporters trust said last week.

If English fans don’t arrive in large numbers, Wednesday’s final could help highlight just how international a competition the Premier League has become.

As of Tuesday morning, most of the Chelsea fans in bars near the official seafront “fan zone” were from Russia, the home country of club owner Roman Abramovich.

Fans from Thailand, Singapore and Iran are also in town, many flying in thanks to Baku’s strong transport connections with Middle Eastern destinations like Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Those from other former Soviet nations have a rare chance to watch Arsenal and Chelsea without going through the costly business of booking flights to London and getting a British visa.

“I prefer to play with our supporters here. I prefer a lot of supporters can come from Arsenal and from Chelsea, from London,” said Arsenal coach Unai Emery, adding he expected local fans to support the team.

“Arsenal and Chelsea have a lot of supporters from all the world, and I think there can be a lot of supporters from Azerbaijan, or closer to Azerbaijan, here at the stadium.”

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