Arsenal fans in Singapore making long and winding trip to Baku for Europa League final

Arsenal fans in Singapore who are heading to Baku to support their team at the Europa League final on 29 May, 2019. (PHOTO: Chia Han Keong/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The allegedly poor organisation of this year’s Uefa Europa League final, to be contested in Baku by Arsenal and Chelsea on Wednesday (29 May), has turned out to be a godsend for Singapore-based Gunners fans.

With thousands of England-based fans not fancying the expensive, arduous trip to the Azerbaijani capital, this has opened up space for Arsenal fans in the Republic to make the 6,900-kilometre trek to Baku.

At least 12 of them were able to secure tickets for the showpiece event at the city’s Olympic Stadium, and will be hoping their beloved Arsenal will prevail in what is predicted to be a tight tussle against their city rivals Chelsea.

Patrick Chan, 50, will be making a dash for the final, having to take a late Monday flight to Istanbul as he has to attend a work meeting earlier in the day.

The long-time Gunners fan said, “I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the world, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, so the moment Arsenal made the final, I made up my mind to go.

“It’s a bit of a rush, and I had problems finding available flights, but hopefully it will all be worth it.”

Ticket allocation from club

Ironically, the very reasons that the Europa League final was criticised by fans – its distant location, poor airport capabilities and inadequate ticket allocation to fans – actually worked in favour of the Singapore fans.

Each club was given just 6,000 tickets at the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, the main reason being that Baku’s Heydar Aliyev international Airport is unable to handle more than 15,000 passengers per day. The rest of them are to be sold to Azerbaijan residents or given to sponsors as complimentary tickets.

Even so, both clubs were unable to sell out their allocated tickets, as not many of their England-based fans were willing to make the 4,500 km trip to Baku, which may cost more than £1,000 (S$1,750). Arsenal returned about 2,200 tickets, while Chelsea returned nearly 4,000.

This meant that Singapore-based Gunners fans who tried to buy the tickets via the Official Arsenal Singapore Supporters Club were able to get them this time.

“Arsenal has a system to allocate away-game tickets to its global fan base, and priority goes to fans who are regulars at away matches,” Tiong Jin Yan, president of the supporters club, told Yahoo News Singapore on Saturday before leaving for Baku.

“Usually, there won’t be any tickets left for overseas supporters clubs like us, especially in major games like the Europa League final. But because not many England-based fans wanted to go, we were lucky enough to be allocated tickets for our interested fans.”

Flights and accommodation

Getting the tickets was just the start of the adventure for these Arsenal fans, as the tickets were sold only after the Gunners’ two-legged win over Spanish side Valencia earlier this month.

For many of the Singapore fans, this meant some last-minute planning for flights and accommodation. As there are no direct flights from Singapore to Baku, the fans have to make transfer flights in Middle Eastern cities like Istanbul, Dubai or Doha.

Such flights are costly, with the fans shelling out between $2,200 and $3,200 to reach Baku.

Then comes the accommodation headaches, as prices of hotels have skyrocketed for the week of the Europa League final. A three-night stay at a decent hotel costs anywhere between $700 and $2,400.

Mkhitaryan controversy

Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan during a training session ahead of the Europa League final. (PHOTO: Tim Goode/PA via AP)

Arsenal will have to do without the services of attacking midfielder Henrik Mkhitaryan for the final, in what is the other major controversy that has dominated headlines.

Mkhitaryan, an Armenian, has decided not to travel to Baku, having not received complete assurances for his safety in Azerbaijan, given the long-standing conflict and animosity between the two countries over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Arsenal have come out to say that Mkhitaryan’s predicament is “completely unacceptable”, slamming the authorities for depriving the player of the chance to help his club win a trophy.

However, the Singapore “Gooners” (as Arsenal die-hards around the world call themselves) are more circumspect about the situation. Tiong said, “Henrik is a very consistent performer this season, but he isn’t a regular match-winner.

“If it was Mesut Ozil or our two strikers (Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) who cannot play, I think we’ll be more upset.”

Underdogs for final

And while he is obviously rooting for an Arsenal victory, Tiong believes his side is the underdog for the Europa League final.

“I would say Chelsea has a 55 per cent chance at winning, and Arsenal has 45 per cent,” he said. “I think the key area is in midfield, where we will have a tough time matching the Chelsea players.

“We will need that moment of inspiration from Ozil to unlock the defence and release our strikers to score. And we will definitely be cheering them throughout the match to drive them on.”

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