Seems Arsenal is now an Europa League team. For the third time in 23 years, the gunners will be playing in Europe’s 2nd tier club competition next season.
The venue for the final next time around will be in Poznan. Don’t be surprised in May 2020 when the British media will be very vocal in criticising the choice of this Polish city because only Ryanair and Wizzair offer direct flights from London. Much the same way they tried to vilify the choice of Baku as the final of the 2019 Europa League final.
Reading only the British media reports, you might believe UEFA had secretly awarded Azerbaijan the rights to the Europa League final and that fans would have to travel on a donkey for two weeks before arriving at The Central Animal Station in Baku.
The reality turned out to be totally different. There were zero episodes of hiccups with scheduled flights, absolutely no issues with Azerbaijani immigration on arrival. In fact the smiling local officers were handing out roses to arriving ladies and a keepsake of a local football legend – Tofiq Bahramov to everybody. Tofiq was the man who effectively helped England win their one and only World Cup. How ungrateful of the British media to try to desecrate the memory of this man’s homeland.
The country of Azerbaijan not only received its guests warmly, it laid on free transports to the stadium for arriving guests. There was no sign of any heavy handedness and no reports of police brutality as is often the case with England fans abroad. Even the notorious racist Chelsea fans were well behaved. Of course the consequences of bad behaviour had been heavily advertised by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is something of a first. Azerbaijan authorities made the embarrassing British traveling fans behave themselves.
Easier to Baku than to Madrid
Despite all the noise about expensive flights, the journey to Baku, at its most expensive was cheaper than the journey to Madrid for the Champions League final a few days later. And you had to travel almost three times as far. Tickets were easy to obtain and the stadium was a beauty both outside and inside.
I’ve got to admit my journey to Baku was uneventful. Filled with lots of hope, I started out at the crack of dawn, took the night bus, walked for a bit and took the coach to Luton Airport. Not a single Arsenal fan in sight. Three hours later, I was in Kiev.
Highlight of the four-hour layover in Ukraine was having to shrug off a mad guy who wanted me to take a parcel to Baku for him, followed by a smooth three-hour flight to the Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Named after a former President, it is one of six international airports serving Azerbaijan. The airport is modern and very beautiful and is served by all the major airlines you can imagine. The airport is linked to a modern highway that compares to anything you can find in the UAE for example.
The less said about the football itself the better. Just over an hour after the final whistle, I picked up my bag from “left luggage” and hailed this hired killer of a cab driver. He probably was a Formula One race car driver in his former life.
I arrived at the airport before 2 am, ordered the biggest McDonalds I could lay my hands on and a massively fat coke, as in Coca Cola. There is nothing like comfort food when you have just been thoroughly thrashed by your opponents.
Eight hours after arriving in Baku, I was on my way home. Sadly I wasn’t bringing the Europa Cup with me.
First stop was in Minsk after a three-hour flight. The Belarus leg of my journey qualifies as the worst transfer flight of my life. It was quicker to check into the country and checkout again. Minsk to Riga was a 60-minute breeze before the final three-hour journey to good old Blighty.
Total cost of travel was less than £300 and this was because I booked my flights just before we qualified for the final. My flights would have been cheaper if I wasn’t operating under very tight timescales due to other life issues. Even after all the noise about how far Baku was and how difficult it was to get there, a determined Arsenal fan could have purchased return flights to Baku for less than £700. You do not have to take direct flights or obvious routes or turn yourself into a mug for the airlines to fleece.
And don’t get me started on the Arsenal management. Some of the cheapest route to Baku was via Dubai. Why couldn’t Arsenal and Emirates arrange a £500 to £600 package for fans to travel to Baku from London? No need for extra or charter flights. This is the published fare and didn’t require discounts from the club or from Emirates.
Mkhitaryan Looks Silly
The most annoying part of the anti-Baku noise from the English media was the subject of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Poor old Henrikh couldn’t go to Baku because his safety was not guaranteed. Yen, yen, yen.
The fact that the English fans who went to Baku came to no harm is proof that Henrikh’s silly excuses were just that. ‘My country is at war with Azerbaijan and I will not dignify them by going to their country’ is what any proud nationalist should be able to say. Not hide behind some pretense about not feeling safe.
It is well known Henrikh is close to the rulers of his country (Armenia) and likely felt that travelling to Baku would be an endorsement of the enemy country. His boycott of the Europa league final was just an excuse to rubbish a country he opposes. This included rolling out his family on social media to slate Azerbaijan.
Where are all the muppets in the media who are usually the first to say don’t bring politics into football?
While you have to praise the club for supporting him, if you read the manager’s words before the final, you could tell nobody believed the yarn about safety.
Sad to say I not only witnessed Arsenal Football club take a hammering in Baku but so did the truth as mainstream media and Henrikh Mkhitaryan did their best to mislead the football fans about a critical football match. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.