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Europa League final venue drenched in controversy but full of beauty

For a country feeling ostracised by the European community, the spectacle of sport remains one of the last, best bets to buy respect.

How else to explain Azerbaijan’s enthusiasm for hosting European competitions, from Eurovision 2012 to the 2015 European Games and this year’s rhythmic gymnastics European championship, despite a severely chequered human rights records and fraught relations with most countries in Europe.

Wednesday’s Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea is the latest and most prominent Baku-based fixture to come drenched in controversy.

British-Armenians say they have been denied visas and the Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is Armenian, will not attend the match because of security concerns. Fans have complained about the exorbitant cost of traveling 2,800 miles for a match that would be more conveniently held at Wembley. And the international community have focused on Azerbaijan’s crackdown on critical journalists, including prison terms and travel bans.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku. Photograph: Alamy

Along with political lobbyists and advertising campaigns luring tourists to the Land of Fire, as Azerbaijan markets itself, it appears that the cash poured into Azerbaijan’s attempts to rehabilitate its reputation through sport may not pay off.

“Fans will be glued to their TVs during this game but we must ensure that Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to ‘sportswash’ its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, in a statement last week.

The political backdrop is unfortunate because Baku is certainly a city worth seeing, an oil-boom metropolis where glass-walled skyscrapers loom not far from the old city’s cobblestoned streets.

From the modern Heydar Aliyev airport, a fleet of purple London-style taxis ferry visitors to the city in a half-hour or less. The city boasts a trio of skyscrapers called the Flame Towers (best seen at night), boardwalks along the Caspian Sea beaches (you should not swim in the city but can rent boats) and a small, polished old town with the 12th-century Maiden Tower. Outside of the city, Yanar Dağ, a natural gas fire pit that has been burning for decades, and the Palace of Shaki Khans, a summer residence for the 18th-19th century rulers, are popular destinations.

The local style of driving is aggressive, and tourists may prefer to hire a driver or take a bus for trips outside of the city rather than renting a car. Travelling with a local is also a good way to avoid scams, but few people outside of Baku will speak English. Restaurants serve excellent local fare, including plov rice dishes, grilled kebabs, and fruits and vegetables.

The country built much of the infrastructure for the 2015 European Games, spending an estimated $600m alone on the Olympic stadium set to host Wednesday’s final. Another city highlight is the futuristic Heydar Aliyev Centre, a cultural centre accentuated by a white, curved roof that swoops to the floor before soaring back into space to reveal a windowed interior.

An Arsenal fan poses next to a giant replica of the Europa League trophy in Baku.

An Arsenal fan poses next to a giant replica of the Europa League trophy in Baku. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

But, like many other prestige projects in modern Azerbaijan, the building is tainted by scandal. The construction of the complex was protested in 2014 after it was revealed that the government had forcibly evicted locals living on and near the building site. An estimated 250 homes were cleared to make way for the building, and law enforcement has cracked down harshly on protests against similar evictions.

In the past few weeks, rumours have also swirled that the government may close off the city centre to local residents, sparking anger online. The Interior Ministry has denied it will shut down the city centre, but confirmed that it would curtail the celebrations of the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on 28 May, when activists traditionally lay flowers at an obelisk dedicated to the state’s independence on Istiglaliyyat Street. Ilgar Mammadov, an opposition politician, said that he planned to visit the monument nonetheless.

“Uefa will never be able to erase the shame of our arrest from its history!” he wrote in an online post.

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