No one wants their club to lose a derby – especially not in a European final – but, before worrying about what will happen in the Europa League final, Chelsea and Arsenal fans had to work out how to find a ticket, how to find their way to Baku and how to find the money to pay for it.
The two clubs received 6,000 tickets each for the final, which works out at less than 9% of the 68,700-seat Olympic Stadium in Baku. That’s the worst allocation for fans for any European final since at least 2006.
Finding a ticket was not the only difficulty for Arsenal and Chelsea fans. They also had to find a way of travelling 2,485 miles to Azerbaijan for the game – the longest distance any fanbase has travelled since neutral venues were introduced for Uefa Cup finals in 1998. Both clubs struggled to sell their allocation and sponsors have also talked about returning tickets. You know a stadium is remote when you can’t give tickets away.
For the fans who did make the trip to Azerbaijan, it was not cheap. Prices for a non-stop flight from London to Baku on the day of the final peaked at £800. The spike was consistent for Liverpool and Tottenham fans travelling to Madrid for the Champions League final, with fans having to fork out a fortune for the short hop to Spain.
Taking the sleeper train to Baku to see the Blues
Despite the difficulties involved, some intrepid supporters have made the trip. As soon as Chelsea thrashed Dynamo Kyiv in the last-16 of the competition, Mark Narborough started to plan for this “logistical nightmare of the final”. When Chelsea beat Slavia Prague in the next round he took the plunge and bought two flights from London to Kutaisi in Georgia for £160 – one for him and one for his girlfriend Caroline, hoping she would agree to go with him. She did and Chelsea kept up their side of the bargain, beating Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties to reach the final.
The long journey has not dampened their enthusiasm. “We landed in Georgia at midnight and arranged a hotel in Kutaisi,” says Mark. “We managed to find Romanoz’s hotel despite the bus dropping us off in a different place! I was awoken by an old lady playing some lovely piano in the morning. Tbilisi was great and, yes, the people were very friendly and willing to help.”
After a stop-off in Georgia, the couple boarded the sleeper train to Baku. “The train was fine, although I didn’t sleep all that much – it’s quite rickety! There was no Wifi on board but they had a toilet – no toilet paper, instead a handy watering can! Safe to say we didn’t make much of the facilities!”
Navigating the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was not exactly a speedy experience but they did receive a hearty welcome. “First we went through Georgian passport check, which seemed to take an age. Then we travelled on 15 minutes and Azerbaijan passport control came on. They set up base in the cabin next to us and we went one-by-one to talk to them. They also took our passport and visas. They asked if I was Chelsea and I got a fist bump and a smile from them. They were very polite and warm, and wished me a great time.”
The Arsenal fans who went from Bournemouth to Baku
Arsenal fans John Kent and his sons John and Christian, who live in Bournemouth, were also on that train from Tbilisi to Baku. Originally from Somers Town in London, John came from a longstanding Gooner family and first went to an Arsenal game with his dad as a five-year-old. He and his sons booked flights from Stansted to Tbilisi via Istanbul just before the semi-final, paying £250 each. During their stop-off in Tbilisi, John’s hotel manager said some Arsenal fans from Malaysia were also staying this week. “I suspect there will be more fans of both teams from outside the UK than from it at the match on Wednesday,” says John.
The Arsenal fan who went from Rome to Doha to Baku
Judy Coombes – from Manchester rather than Malaysia – was at Arsenal’s semi-final in Valencia when she booked her ticket. She says it’s “ridiculous” to spend this much for one game but she follows her team all over the world – including pre-season friendlies – so cannot miss a cup final. She flew from Rome to Baku via Doha for £633 and is paying another £546 for four nights in a hotel. Her match ticket was just €50.
Judy as been a fan since the 1970s. Her father was born in 1915 just a “stone’s throw” from Highbury and, despite being the eldest son of a Tottenham fan, he chose to follow Arsenal and witnessed the great teams of the 1930s. Though he took Judy’s older brother to games in the late 1960s, she had to nag him to take her along and did not start attending games regularly until the late 1990s.
“I joined Arsenal’s north-west supporters’ club, got a season ticket and joined the away scheme the first time I had money, access to tickets and was able to get time off work,” she says. “When I bought my house about 16 years ago I deducted what I estimated I spent on following Arsenal each year – about £12,000 at the time – and then got mortgage to match what was left!”
When she was in Austria for the pre-season tour in 2002 Coombes met “a number of the real hardcore Gooners” including Austrians, Norwegians, Americans and Italians, and they have remained friends ever since. The logo “Gooner Gals”, written on her T-shirt, refers to a group of 500 female fans from all over the world, including Guam, South Africa and Indonesia.
The Chelsea fan who only flew three hours
Though there have been complaints that the final should not have been held in Azerbaijan, some fans have benefitted from its location. British Chelsea fan James Bury works as an events manager in Dubai and was able to fly to Baku in just three hours. Bury, who is travelling with three other Chelsea supporters, feels that Azerbaijan has every right to host the game because it’s a participant in the league.
However, he is less happy about the way fans have been treated by Uefa and airlines. He booked his flights straight after Chelsea beat Frankfurt in the semi-finals, paying $250. By the next day, prices had shot up to $1,500. “The ticket allocation is clearly too low, but the major issue is that the clubs did very little to help the fans get to the game by subsiding or organising travel from the UK – especially for season ticket holders” For those who have made it to Baku, the excitement is mounting before the game. At the moment at least for both teams’ supporters it was well worth making the trip.