UEFA should take ALL the blame for hell of Europa League final in Baku

The identity of the Europa League quarter-finalists was known on Thursday, March 14. By the following evening, UEFA should have been able to announce the venue for the final. Somewhere reachable; somewhere the fans could enjoy. Not Baku. Nowhere remote, or inhospitable. Nowhere prohibitively expensive.

There are 18 countries and 1,725 miles between the points UEFA could choose from. They are lying when they say the woe of Baku and back is not on them.

By the time the round of 16 concluded, UEFA knew the area covered by the quarter-finalists. It ranged from Lisbon in the west to Prague in the east, London in the north to Naples in the south. And at that point, UEFA knew too that the nearest Baku would be to any of the possible finalists was 2,227 miles away.

Slavia Prague were then knocked out. Even so, had UEFA already decreed that the final was being held in Vienna, say, 156 miles from the Czech capital, there would be no argument whoever ended up there.

Vienna is approachable. So is most of Germany, Spain, or France – and these are all countries with stadium options. It should not take close to two years to find a venue for a final.

Yet Baku was chosen on September 20, 2017. We already know the venue for the 2020 final: Gdansk in Poland. This month we will discover who hosts in 2021: either Tbilisi in Georgia, or Seville.

And for what? So UEFA can conjure up some branding and a meaningless slogan. ‘Together to Baku,’ is the one for this year. Yet who is together to Baku, considering the limitations of the venue? Together in a car, six hours from Tbilisi maybe. Together via Istanbul. Together watching from the sofa because tickets are so scarce.

The qualifying teams, Arsenal and Chelsea, have been told they will only get 6,000 seats each in a 68,700 capacity stadium, and this is now being blamed on the main airport only being able to handle 15,000 visitors a day. And UEFA found that out now? Of course not.

One of the advantages of a two-year lead time is the compilation of evaluation reports; detailed analyses of venue logistics, including international transportation. Meaning UEFA knew of Baku’s flaws and the unavoidable restrictions on tickets but ignored it.

They probably figured that once the final was taken so far east, the numbers travelling would be significantly down anyway.

The only argument for holding finals in remote locations concern inclusion. Azerbaijan is part of UEFA too. Why shouldn’t it get a little gravy? And that much is true. Yet the final venue should always play sympathetically to the needs of supporters.

This year, Krasnodar and Zenit St Petersburg from Russia were in the Europa League’s last 16. Had either got through, most of eastern Europe could have been considered among the options for a final, even Moscow. And yes, Arsenal and Chelsea to Moscow, would still have been a trek. Yet there would have been more than 6,000 tickets each at the end of it, and flights and entry routes would have been less problematic.

This is a final constructed with the least thought, even for the playing participants, given that it has now been revealed that Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Arsenal might not be able to get a visa, due to Armenia’s war footing with Azerbaijan.

How could UEFA award such a fixture to a city without first establishing that all players would be able to gain access? That alone should have been a red flag in 2017 – or at least sorted out months ago when it was clear that Arsenal’s presence in the final was very possible.

Azerbaijan has lots of lovely oil money and, looking back, this has been on the agenda since UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin took the job. He floated the idea in his first major interview, in 2016 when discussing potential final venues. ‘To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York,’ he said. ‘For the fans it’s no problem.’

At the time, the headlines were about UEFA taking the Champions League final to the American continent – and that will come if the elite clubs get their way, don’t worry – but we all missed Baku as a prior staging post. You’ve got to love that ‘no problem’, too. There speaks a man who hasn’t worried about the cost of watching football in decades.

Ask Arsenal or Chelsea’s fans if Baku is no problem. OK, two years too late, but it might inform the decision over Tbilisi in 2021.

It is a myth that UEFA, or any remotely competent organisation, cannot organise an event in two months. If it goes the distance, baseball’s World Series completes its post-season play-offs two or three days before the finals begin.

In 2012, San Francisco Giants played St Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant on Monday, October 22. Having won, the World Series opened with the Giants facing Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, October 24. Yet the Tigers could just as easily have been playing in St Louis that day.

San Francisco and St Louis are 2,051 miles apart, and while Detroit to St Louis is 532 miles, San Francisco is 2,393 miles away. And yet it gets done. Travel is organised, tickets are sold, branding is designed – and the whole process is completed in 48 hours.

And no, because of the often enormous distances involved, baseball does not have the tradition of away support that exists in football. Yet there are still a few hardy souls who make the trip – and between two days and two years, there is surely middle ground. It’s called March.

By the time Europe’s richest clubs had finished fashioning financial fair play into a protectionist’s charter, Manchester United, it seemed, were golden. Nothing would challenge their elite status. They had neutered the power of new money; they had insured themselves against the day Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down.

David Gill’s many years of politicking in football’s highest offices had been worth every meeting. Manchester United had football where they wanted it.

And then Ferguson left and the entire edifice crumbled. If Arsenal win the Europa League, United will be the only member of the Premier League’s elite six not in the Champions League next season. They did not qualify in 2014-15 or 2016-17 either. Since losing the Champions League final in 2011, the deepest they have gone into the competition is two quarter-final appearances, five years apart.

So those worrying that Manchester City’s rule is permanent after back-to-back titles and 198 points over two years, can relax. In football – certainly in English football – nothing is for ever.

If Manchester United, a club with every advantage of size, wealth and privilege can be plunged into a relative wilderness, then City’s dominance cannot last, either. Think about it: unless Vincent Kompany scores the greatest goal of his career, they probably don’t win this title.

And then, one day, Pep Guardiola will depart. How do they replace him; indeed, who could replace him? City possess a more sophisticated executive strategy than United, but that doesn’t mean there will not be a Guardiola effect.

Manuel Pellegrini won the title in his first season, but went downhill after. Roberto Mancini ended up in a ruinously fractious relationship with the club, and a single title win. The new money ensures the dominance of super powers like Juventus and Bayern Munich is not such a factor in the English game.

Even if City were to win again next season, they would just be equalling the feats of Huddersfield (1923-26), Arsenal (1932-35), Liverpool (1981-84) and Manchester United (1998-2001 and 2006-09). Only a fourth victory would be unprecedented. As it is, City merely join a list of 11 clubs that have retained the title, on 25 occasions.

And it hasn’t happened for a while – not since Manchester United in 2008-09 – and never by winning a combined 198 points, so there is a lot of projection. Yet City were never this successful until Guardiola arrived.

And if he isn’t for ever, neither are they. 

If Mauricio Pochettino was a Tottenham player he would have been widely castigated for his behaviour at the end of last week, Champions League final or not. Why does he keep talking about his future at Tottenham? More specifically, why does he keep talking about not having one?

In the aftermath of an incredible night in Amsterdam, suddenly it was all about Pochettino’s intentions again. What if Harry Kane or Christian Eriksen had used such a special moment to cast a shadow of doubt across the club? They would have been accused of self-indulgence, of selfishness, of undermining their team-mates.

Pochettino can hardly complain now, if he has to field more questions about his intentions. He can hardly be surprised if his motives are regarded cynically. A sabbatical? At a time when Manchester United might be regretting their latest managerial appointment? Well, isn’t that convenient?

If Daniel Levy makes good his promises of investment, there really isn’t a better club for Pochettino than Tottenham right now – yet frequently his public utterances serve only to challenge that view. What is going on? This seems as strategic as any of his game plans. 

There are not enough geniuses in broadcasting that we can afford to lose one. What was interesting about Danny Baker’s dismissal, however, is those who leapt to his defence. Everyone who knew him, and had a public platform.

Unable to give the benefit of the doubt: those who have never met him, or had no interest in his work, his interests or his personality.

On social media, many of those sitting in judgement made the connection between Baker’s south London roots, his love of football and his support for Millwall. It stood to reason that he would harbour horrid prejudices because he was a white, working class, Millwall fan. There’s a word for that, you know. 

A Premier League money table has been published. It is made up of three categories: the equal share of £79.4m each, the money accrued from live TV broadcasts and the per place prize money. Of the 20 clubs, eight were in exactly the same position in the league table as the money table, 10 were one place off and two – Newcastle and Watford – swapped places two away.

The table in the Championship, by comparison, is random. Manchester City did not win the league solely because of money – Liverpool actually topped that table – but finance decides who gets in the mix.

At the end of what was quite probably the greatest title race in history, as Manchester City lifted the trophy, a dreadful refrain filled the Amex Stadium. ‘No time for losers,’ sang Freddie Mercury. Really? This, of all seasons? Hasn’t anyone at the Premier League been watching their own competition? How incredibly crass. 

Many years ago, when Sky’s coverage of the Premier League was in its infancy, a very famous former England footballer was the studio guest. He was asked what he expected to see from a young winger, a talent on the rise, tipped for international honours. ‘Not much, really,’ he replied.

Pressed to explain, he offered the devastating analysis: ‘I don’t fancy the black lads much, when it gets cold.’ Suffice, he made two appearances on television that night: his first, and last.

We appear to have moved on since then. And for those that have not, perhaps the sight of three African players – Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – sharing this season’s Golden Boot with 22 goals each will persuade. It’s not where you’re from that counts; it’s where you’re at.

Salomon Rondon is still unsure of his Newcastle future, despite scoring 11 goals this season and becoming the first Newcastle striker to win the club’s Player of the Year since Alan Shearer in 2003. Rondon is on loan from West Brom but, at 30, his age profile apparently goes against the club’s policy. Imagine – there’s a policy. Who knew? 

Looking at Brighton’s team sheet, it is surely no surprise the club battled relegation. With the exception of Lewis Dunk, arguably no individual would get into a team in the top half. So Chris Hughton’s sacking is harsh.

Having said this, Brighton are not the first club to reject a pragmatic manager in the hope the switch to a more open style will bring with it excitement and improved results. Sometimes, however, the excitement is of a rather different kind to that imagined. Ask Stoke.


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