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UEFA Europa League finals: Azerbaijan match in trouble

Arsenal fans are livid at the club management after it said that they could not guarantee mid-fielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s safety when the Gunners make the trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Europa Cup final.

The 30-year old Armenian has backed out of the May 29 clash fearing for his safety. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in intermittent wars over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.) 

Arsenal who missed out on the opportunity to be amongst the Top Four of the Premier League and a berth in next season’s UEFA Champions League, have still a chance to qualify for Europe’s premier club tournament if they can win at Baku. Supporters of the North London club want Arsenal to forgo this chance and stand up to the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) who they perceive as having failed to guarantee Mkhitaryan’s safety. The UEFA has drawn flak for its decision to stage an event as important as the Europa Cup final in a disturbed country such as Azerbaijan. Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny’s reaction to Mkhitaryan’s backing out was that Azerbaijan should not be allowed to host European finals at all. Arsenal coach Unai Emery is aware that he will be missing one of his key players in the mid-field but he respects the Armenian’s decision to give the finals a pass. 

Gunners fans are moreover faced with the prospect of making the gruelling 3000-mile trip to the Eurasian country. There are no direct flights from London to Baku and the journey could entail arduous stopovers at either Istanbul or Kiev. The quickest route by road from Kiev is through the troubled Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine while a train journey from London to Baku would involve 11 changes and take up to 2 days at least. It is keeping these logistical hurdles in mind that the UEFA decided to allot a paltry 6,000 tickets each to both Arsenal and Chelsea fans. Baku’s Olympic Stadium that can house as many as 60,000 people, now faces the stark possibility of empty seats all around what with many fans on both sides wanting to part with their tickets. 

There have been frantic last minute efforts by both club managements to get travel giant Thomas Cook to come up with sub £1000-per-person packages to lure back fans unwilling to take the arduous trip to Baku.

As if this was not enough, there have been advisories from the British Foreign office that hint to possible terrorist attacks being carried out on the English. The fact that Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country which is politically fluid presently makes regulators or officials take a cautious course.

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