The Europa League final is the debacle that keeps on giving. After Arsenal confirmed that midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan would not be playing the final in Baku, Azerbaijan due to his Armenian heritage, reports are coming out that the stadium might be half-empty for what is ostensibly the second biggest European soccer match of the season.
First, a report by Sky Sports said that Arsenal and Chelsea are both sending back thousands of tickets to the final that they could not sell due to its remote location in far-Eastern Europe. Earlier the clubs had complained about the small allotment of tickets they received in the first place (only about 12,000 of the 68,700 capacity at the Baku Olympic Stadium were reserved for the involved teams’ fans). Since then, Arsenal and Chelsea have realized that not even 12,000 of their fans are interested in traveling 5,600 miles round-trip and paying the exorbitant hotel fees endemic to these kinds of events.
You can understand the lack of interest from London-based fans in traveling so far and spending so much money to watch the final of Europe’s JV tournament, the result of which really only matters to Arsenal. The more damning reports, though, are that sponsors are now looking to return tickets as well. The main reason most big soccer matches (and big sporting events in general, for that matter) make so few tickets available for the competing teams’ fans is that tournament sponsors get a large allotment as part of their deals. It’s why the European finals almost always have terrible atmospheres, and it’s another sign of the soulless avarice that animates soccer at the highest levels.
However, due to both the Europa League final’s remote location and concerns over the Azerbaijani government’s human rights violations towards Armenians (the reason Mkhitaryan is not playing in the final), these same sponsors are finding it hard to find enough people willing to make the trek to Baku.
Matt Hughes from The Times wrote that all the returned tickets will be put up for sale among the local Azerbaijanis. Locals have already bought 23,000 tickets, but they may not have the demand to fill the stadium further.
What makes the embarrassment even worse is how completely foreseeable this clusterfuck was. Over the past decade, exactly two of the 20 Europa League finalists have hailed from a country outside Western Europe. UEFA had to know the near certainty that this season’s tournament would feature two Western European clubs as well. And yet they went ahead and set the final way out in Azerbaijan anyway, knowing full well the logistical nightmare this would cause.
UEFA’s stated reasoning for holding the final in Baku as given earlier this week was that it’s only fair to spread the joy of a Europa League final—again, a thing most people do not care that much about!—to all parts of the continent. It seems more likely that UEFA’s selection of Baku was as political and money-motivated as all these international sport tournament awarding processes are.
If it were only the clubs failing to fulfill their ticket orders, this probably wouldn’t have worried the powers that be all that much. But throw in the terrible optics of the Mkhitaryan ordeal, plus UEFA’s precious sponsors not being happy, and you can bet things will change going forward. Gdańsk, Poland is already locked in to host next season’s final (at least closer to a centralized location, if not a particularly glamorous one), but the field is open for 2021 and beyond. Fan anger and a geopolitical fracas might not be enough to drag the Europa League final westward in the future, but money sure as hell is.