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Beyond the international headlines about Mkhitaryan and inconvenienced fans, the people of Azerbaijan faced travel restrictions and more because of the game. But despite complaints of few economic or sporting benefits of playing host, some say it is still beneficial in drawing attention to human rights abuses in the country.
On 29 May, for the first time in its history, Baku hosted the final of the Europa League football tournament. But even before the Arsenal–Chelsea match took place, the event had already become mired in controversy and scandal on multiple fronts.
The choice of Baku by UEFA — European football’s governing body — to host the match proved controversial with both fans and the teams themselves.
The distance of over 4,000 kilometres from Britain to Azerbaijan, the excessively high flight costs and other expenses infuriated many supporters wishing to travel to watch the game.
Liverpool’s head coach Jürgen Klopp said that ‘going to Baku, that’s really funny’, and protested by arguing that, ‘in these decisions [about the venue], people must be much more sensible and reasonable. It is irresponsible’.
The limited capacity of Baku International Airport to receive visitors also provoked outrage. In the end, 6,000 out of the 11,500 tickets assigned for foreign fans went unsold.
Most controversial of all was the decision by Arsenal player Henrikh Mkhitaryan to skip the match because of safety concerns over his Armenian heritage.
On 23 May, Amnesty International called upon UEFA to ensure that Azerbaijan wouldn’t be allowed to ‘sportswash its appalling human rights record’ by covering up abuses behind the football fanfare.
All of this poured cold water on the organisers’ plans to showcase Baku, and Azerbaijan, to a global audience.
A bad situation ‘exacerbated’
But beyond the headlines about Mkhitaryan and disgruntled English fans, the people of Azerbaijan also saw little to celebrate from the game.
In an effort to reduce the growing discontent of the fans, the Azerbaijani government resorted to restricting the movement of local people — methods previously employed while hosting projects such as the Formula 1 races, the European Games, and Eurovision.
As Baku International Airport lacked the capacity to handle all the visitors, the train schedules were amended — on the Baku–Astara line running south to the Iranian border and on the Baku–Gazakh line running west to Georgia, trains were cancelled for three days. The wagons were reallocated to transport supporters who had had to fly into Georgia to Baku.
Arif Valiyev, a resident of Astara, says that such measures exacerbated an already bad situation and added insult to injury for local people. ‘The buses and trains to Baku are already in poor condition … and mostly relied upon by poor people. It's bad enough here without them cutting the [local] train services for the comfort of foreign guests. In order to accommodate these foreign visitors, the buses will now be twice as crowded [due to the lack of trains]. Alternatively, one will have to use a taxi service which costs more’, Valiyev tells OC Media.
Independence Day denied
On 21 May, Azerbaijani news agency ONA, known for its close ties to the government, announced that police would restrict the movement of local people in the central streets of Baku from 25–31 May as a security measure. Movement would also be restricted around the Jumhuriyyat Monument on Independence Street, a place traditionally visited on Republic Day (also known as Independence Day) which falls on the 28 May.
Following the immediate public backlash this provoked, the government denied they had made such an announcement. Israfil Karimov, a spokesperson for the Baku Executive Power, called it a ‘provocation’ but avoided commenting on the media entity which had broadcast it.
However, many residents of the capital claimed that restrictions were already in place in the city centre ahead of the match. Azar Gasimli, the head of Majlis (congress) of the Republican Alternative (ReAL) Party, confirmed that his party intended to conduct its traditional visit to the Jumhuriyyat Monument on Republic Day but had been met with obstruction.
‘The chairperson of the Party, Mr Ilgar Mammadov, was summoned to the Main Police Office in Baku where he was warned that he could not visit the monument on 28 May. As a reason, they said that there might be some skirmishes with the English hooligans and this measure was therefore justified to ensure security. It means we are prohibited from celebrating our own independence day just because of the mere possibility of violence from some foreign football hooligan’, Gasimli tells OC Media.
He says his party was also denied permission to visit the monument a day prior, on 27 May, and therefore members were deprived of their rights under the pretext of the Europa League.
‘In 1936, fascist-governed Germany under the Hitler regime was allowed to host the Olympic Games. Subsequently, Hitler used it for his PR, and you know the aftermath of this. The Azerbaijani government does the same — it tries to derive benefits from this PR in order to whitewash its tarnished image. That’s why, when making decisions [about host countries], it’s a must for UEFA and other sports organisations to think [these things] through.’
A tourism boom?
The Azerbaijani government has frequently reiterated that hosting the Europa League and other international events is a boom for tourism, economic development, and sports in Azerbaijan, as well as being a means of promoting the country abroad. They argue that this justifies the temporary inconveniences and difficulties that local people must endure.
Economist Toghrul Mashalli agrees that such an event brings certain economic and tourism benefits, but argues that Azerbaijan is not able to benefit from this because of mismanagement by the state. ‘The principal problem is that in Azerbaijan, the state is the only entity involved in organising such an event. If the state engages in such activity, the problems and costs will be amplified.’
‘Although Baku International Airport works well enough, other airports in the country and transport links from other cities to Baku are not in a good state, the government, therefore, had to limit themselves to issuing only 15,000 tickets for foreign visitors. And, now, it’s been revealed that most of them remained unsold. So it can be considered a “subvertisement”, adverse publicity in the name of the country’, Mashalli tells OC Media.
‘If these problems had been eliminated in a timely manner, it would have been possible to gain a lot of profits in a single day, as well as promoting the country’, he says.
ReAL Party’s Azar Gasimli says that while the infrastructure in Azerbaijan is good, its management has deteriorated because of monopolist policies. ‘The hotels are under control of [influential Azerbaijani families] the Pashayevs, the Aliyevs. AZAL [Azerbaijan Airlines] does not let any other aviation company into the country’s market which could be in competition with it. For this reason, Azerbaijan loses out on having airlines such as Pegasus and Wizzair which operate flights to Georgia from a range of European cities’, he says.
Benefits for Azerbaijani football
Huseyn Jabrayiloghlu is the former press secretary of the now-defunct Azerbaijani football club Khazar Lankaran. In its heyday, the club drew in thousands of fans to every game, more than most other clubs in the Caucasus, but it stopped operating in 2016 in protest against corruption in Azerbaijani football.
Jabrayiloghlu says that hosting the Europa League final will not improve the situation with football in the country. ‘It’s fine to have such an event in Azerbaijan. However, I do not share the belief that it will be beneficial for Azerbaijani football as there are people in the senior management of the Azerbaijani Football Federation who have no connection with football. Because clubs outside of Baku are not able to participate in the country’s championship, they ironically call the Azerbaijani Championship the “Baku Championship”. Despite the great interest in football in the country, only 2,000 people turned out during one round of the championship.’
‘If the same amount of money was invested in football in Azerbaijan as it is in countries like Georgia, it would be quite possible for our clubs to succeed in reaching the quarter-final of the Champions League. The reason [they don’t] is that people with no understanding of football are managing it and there is a lack of transparency as well. Even though they publish a report, it is not known how the money is spent.’
Former sports journalist, Ilgar Valiyev also has no belief in such events having improving sports in the country. ‘The critical point concerning the Azerbaijani Championship is that the vast majority of clubs in the championship are being indirectly financed through the state budget. Surely without fixing these kinds of problems, such events have no ability to develop sport’.
Nevertheless, Valiyev considers the organisation of such events to be a good thing. ‘We all know the problems in Azerbaijan, it’s common knowledge that freedoms in our country are restricted. However, in contrast to F1 and the European Games, the Europa League Final has some positive sides for the country. The best side here is that we can use the interest currently focused on Azerbaijan to draw attention to our problems.’
Human rights are unavoidable
Economist Toghrul Mashalli says that UEFA overlooked human rights issues and other important matters when choosing the venue for the match because they were searching for new markets.
‘After the resignations in UEFA and FIFA in various scandals, both organisations were searching for new markets’, he says.
‘In recent years, UEFA has tried to promote football in Eastern Europe … In Western Europe, they already have a stable income from football, which is not the case in Eastern Europe’.
Rasul Jafarov, a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist, led the ‘Sing for Democracy’ campaign during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. The campaign brought widespread international coverage of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan throughout the contest.
Jafarov is optimistic about the effects of the Europa League final too. ‘The problems in Azerbaijan would still exist even without such events’, he tells OC Media. ‘[Because of] the current situation, the world’s media wrote about Azerbaijan more than previously. If it were not a single-day event, it would be possible to organise another campaign to draw international attention to our human rights issues.’
‘Azerbaijan is located in such a geopolitical position that, sooner or later, democratic processes will be unavoidable. Therefore, such events serve as an indirect means of support for us [human rights defenders], and they can bring more benefits than harm’, Jafarov concludes.