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Comment: Uefa should be embarrassed by soulless Europa League final as Chelsea beat Arsenal

 

No show: Baku’s Olympic Stadium was littered with empty seats for last night’s contest
No show: Baku’s Olympic Stadium was littered with empty seats for last night’s contest
Adrian Rutherford

The sight of hundreds and hundreds of empty seats as Arsenal and Chelsea kicked off in Baku's Olympic Stadium last night should be deeply embarrassing for Uefa chiefs.

One of the year's showpiece games had become a soulless spectacle, devoid of atmosphere and reduced to the feel of a pre-season glamour friendly.

Pockets of the turquoise seating could be seen all around the arena, including the posh section, where some of the sponsors clearly didn't fancy it either.

Even the obligatory pre-match fireworks failed to raise the tempo.

In the end Chelsea fans were celebrating, after an Eden Hazard-inspired victory, but the swathe of empty seats was as embarrassing as it was unnecessary.

A 68,500 seater stadium takes some filling - but what did they expect?

Staging the final at the crossroads of Europe and Asia had come at too high a cost - literally - for most.

Many of the clubs' hardcore support had been priced out by tales of £1,000 flight costs and turned off by unreasonably complex travel issues.

For those who had made it, the road to Baku had been one less travelled, taking many on tortuous routes via Istanbul, Kiev, Minsk and Moscow, for a London derby being held east of Baghdad.

It wasn't just supporters missing out, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan shamefully absent.

The Armenian-born Arsenal midfielder felt it was too unsafe to travel given the decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and his homeland.

Ahead of the game, videos had emerged of Arsenal fans with shirts bearing Mkhitaryan's name being hassled by local police and, while his name did appear in the Gunners squad list for the Uefa-produced official programme, it will be another deep sense of embarrassment for European football's governing body.

Added to all of that, the three-hour time difference meant it was 11pm local time before the game kicked off, and so a 90-minute football match ran into a second day.

When Hazard rolled home the penalty for Chelsea's third, it was already well past midnight, and some Arsenal fans had seen enough, opting to head for home. More followed after the Belgian midfielder, in probably his last game for the club, made it 4-1.

By the time Chelsea's players got their hands on the trophy, it was past 1am.

That the game itself was a poor affair - a goalless first 45 minutes followed by a one-sided second half - didn't help, but these things happen.

What can be avoided is the chaos of taking showpiece games to destinations that bring travel problems for too many fans.

There are lessons to be learnt from this for the future.

The host of the 2021 Europa League final was due to be announced yesterday. Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, has bid, so too Seville. Perhaps the experience of Baku has focused minds.

Uefa justified the venue as part of their mission to expand the boundaries of European football. However, the memories of those empty seats, and a final where just 7,000 travelled, should shame them.

Belfast Telegraph

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