BC-SOC--Europa League Final-Fan Voyages,1st Ld-Writethru
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 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, but Azerbaijan soccer federation spokesman Firuz Garayev said “not many” were left and none were being given away for free to fill seats.
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.
Kick-off 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.
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