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Why holding the Europa League final in Baku was never a good idea

Why holding the Europa League final in Baku was never a good idea

In the past, UEFA has had a solid track record at holding major finals in different stadiums across Europe.

Not only is the venue a neutral one at that, not handing any advantages to either side. But it gives great publicity to some cities that don’t usually get to see football of that calibre.

Cardiff and Lisbon spring to mind as two of the most recent cities that fit this bill.

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan seems to also be in that boat. But when you look a bit closer, it isn’t as it appears.

It will host the 2018/19 Europa League final between English superpowers, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both sides are strongly supported across the globe, meaning that tickets to the game will be hotly contested, right?

Wrong.

Arsenal and Chelsea have only been allocated 6000 seats each in the Baku Olympic stadium, which has a capacity for nearly 70000 people. Seems ridiculous right?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The rest of the seats will be given to corporate members and UEFA partners. You can make up your own minds as to why that’s the case.

It’s a blight on UEFA for not only choosing to do this, but to do it at the expense of those who make the game so unanimously loved across the globe.

The fans.

Furthermore, flights to Azerbaijan for anyone wanting to go to the game and cheer their team are stupidly expensive.

Some flights are in excess of 1,000 British Pounds (that’s 2,000 AUD) and require multiple stopovers. If you think back to last September when West Coast fans were ripped off by the airlines on their way to Melbourne for the AFL Grand Final, it’s like that.

But on some serious steroids.

And as if it couldn’t get any worse, it has.

With Arsenal making the final, Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be in contention to either start or come on as a substitute. He’s been a serviceable player this season for the Gunners and would offer them great flexibility on the day, either on a wing or as a central midfielder.

But due to political tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it’s a 50/50 chance that Mkhitaryan makes it to Baku.

Now whilst it’s easy to say UEFA couldn’t have done anything about this, truth be told, they could’ve prevented this.

Simply don’t hold the final in a country where there are political tensions of any sort. As Thanos once said, “it’s a simply calculus”.

In a day and age where society thrives on inclusion for all people regardless of race, gender or anything else, it’s a damn shame that UEFA and the sport of soccer have come to this.

For everything they’ve stood to stamp out, this farcical situation which is overshadowing what should be a great final seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

It’s not as big of a mistake as the decision to host the 1985 Champions League final in Belgium’s Heysel Stadium, but it’s certainly a mistake that most football fans and UEFA will want to forget in a hurry.

Let’s hope that lessons can be learnt from this.

Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

What will a National Second Tier mean for the NPL?

As the concept of a National Second Tier becomes a reality in Australia, there are questions on what the removal of the biggest clubs will mean for the State League competitions.

Football Australia are still discussing and workshopping the format of the concept, and how it operates and coexists with the National Premier Leagues (NPL) is one of the biggest questions.

When the NPL was created in 2013, the aim was to standardise the State League competitions across Australia and serve as a second tier to the A-League. The competition has been the top division in each state outside the A-League, with the winners playing off against each other at the end of the season.

The NPL hasn’t managed to bridge the gap between the State League clubs and the A-League, shown by the push for a true National Second Tier.

We know that the current NPL clubs would jump at the chance to join a National Second Tier, however, what would this mean for the State Leagues moving forward?

There is certainly commercial value to having South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights play off in the Victorian State League. Without the traditional powerhouse clubs in there, the Victorian NPL would struggle to attract sponsors and fans that drive the clubs, allowing them to perform at a semi-professional level.

Determining what the value of the NPL is without traditional clubs is a question that will be asked across every state competition if a National Second Tier drags them away.

Football Australia has previously floated a Champions League-style competition idea, with 32 teams competing in a group stage format followed by a knockout stage.

The allure of this concept is to reduce the cost of travel and the financial burden on the clubs at the league’s inception while allowing the clubs to continue to play in their respective state NPL competitions.

However, this is a stop-gap solution to get the competition off the ground, with the intention of easing into the transition from semi-professional into a fully professional second tier with promotion and relegation down the track.

There are certainly positives to this structure. Using the Champions League-style format to get the competition off the ground and running before evolving into a traditional league format could be the best way for a National Second Tier to launch.

The reality is that the first few years in a National Second Tier will be difficult for the clubs if the competition is a complete home and away league featuring at least 18 games. It is a distinct possibility clubs will fold, or flee back to the relative safety of their state competitions.

This isn’t a reason not to proceed with the competition, however, it is a danger that the clubs must recognise. To alleviate this danger, clubs can play in their state competitions while featuring in a parallel Champions League-style competition.

Some of the NPL’s biggest clubs would prefer a traditional style home and away season. South Melbourne President Nick Maikousis outlined in an interview with Soccerscene that a National Second Tier could mean some of the biggest clubs depart the State Leagues.

“We don’t agree that a Champions League-style competition is a National Second Division. Our views are that it needs to be a stand-alone competition. The challenge for the state federations is potentially losing some of their biggest member clubs,” Maikousis said.

“If you take South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights, and Heidelberg out of the NPL Victoria competition, it becomes a different conversation.”

He also pointed out that reluctance to lose these clubs from their respective state leagues by some stakeholders is similar to arguments raised against the formation of the National Soccer League in the 1970s.

Fears of losing the State League’s biggest clubs aren’t new. At the NSL’s inception in 1977, the Victorian Premier League forbid its clubs from joining the new competition. Mooroolbark SC, an unremarkable Eastern Suburbs club, broke the deadlock, paving the way for South Melbourne, Heidelberg and Footscray just to follow in their footsteps.

Mooroolbark unfortunately found themselves relegated out of the NSL in their only year in the competition, before ending up in the provisional league at the bottom of the football pyramid by the 1980s.

Eventually, any national second tier competition must become a stand-alone league if Australian football is to have a proper pyramid of competitions featuring promotion and relegation. The state NPL competitions will lose their biggest clubs to this, but it creates opportunities for other clubs to forge ahead and take their place.

Australian football needs to be brave in its attempt to create something that will outlast us all. Countries like England, Spain, and Italy have built their football not only on heritage, but also a deep talent pool developed playing in the leagues below their top division.

Promotion and relegation must be the end game for football if it’s to reach its full potential in Australia. For a club to climb from State League 5 to the A-League, from amateur to professional, is the ultimate expression of the beautiful game.

The state leagues will survive losing their biggest clubs, like they did at the NSL’s inception. The question is what value these competitions still have without their biggest assets.

Is the time finally right for Australia to host the FIFA World Cup?

In a story that caught the eyes of the Australian football community last week, sport and government officials are said to be planning a bid to host the 2030 or 2034 FIFA World Cup down under.

The idea to host the world’s biggest sporting event in Australia is a key part of a strategy that looks to bring a selection of major events to the country, on the back of Brisbane securing the 2032 Olympic Games.

FA CEO James Johnson explained that the governing body has not yet decided to bid for the World Cup, but suggested it is a part of the vision they have for the game.

“It’s an aspiration (hosting the World Cup), that’s part of our vision,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The next time I think we could realistically host it is 2034 because 2026 is in North America, 2022 is in Asia, 2030 – I think – will go to Europe or South America. There’s an opportunity to bring the World Cup back to Asia, the Asia-Pacific area, in 2034.”

A factor which should strengthen Australia’s case to be the home of a future World Cup is the hosting of the upcoming Women’s World Cup in 2023.

In a pattern which Australia is hoping to follow, Canada hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and used it as a stepping stone to eventually win the right to host part of the 2026 World Cup, alongside Mexico and USA.

Australia, alongside co-hosts New Zealand, are set to sell a record number of tickets for the 2023 tournament.

FIFA have opened an office in Australia to assist with the dealings in the build-up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which gives FA access and the opportunity to open dialogue with FIFA administrators and pursue their future ambitions.

The FA CEO knows however, it is imperative that Australia delivers a world class tournament to stand any chance of winning the right to host a future World Cup.

“What I can say is we’ve got an opportunity with the 2023 Women’s World Cup – I think we will deliver an outstanding tournament. If we can deliver the best ever Women’s World Cup tournament, it does put you in a good position to take on more FIFA competitions,” Johnson said.

Australia was awarded the 2023 Women’s World Cup under a new FIFA voting process, which is also set to give the country more of a chance to win a further vote this time around in 2030 or more likely 2034.

Under Australia’s previous World Cup bid in 2010, they secured a singular vote from FIFA’s council.

However, the new voting method gives all 211 national member associations a chance to vote, rather than the previous secretive process which was conducted by FIFA council members.

Australia may have further success with this system due to the transparent nature of it and minimization of influence from FIFA’s top dogs.

One of those head honchos is Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, who has steered the ship in the organisation after replacing Sepp Blatter in 2016.

Johnson believes Infantino’s approach to competitions would mean Australia is going to have to find a partnering country for any future bid for a World Cup.

“If you look at the way Gianni is wanting to run his competition strategies, he wants cross-nation competitions. I don’t see any future World Cups being run by one country,” said Johnson.

“It is something that would need to be done with other countries in the region, both in the Asia and probably Oceania region.”

FA have previously held discussions with Indonesia about hosting a World Cup and they, alongside New Zealand, are the most likely candidates to partner with Australia if they bid.

Sharing the bid with another country like Indonesia will have its benefits, such as improving relations between both countries and also halving the costs of an expensive exercise.

There will be difficulties that need to be worked out, but this may be Australia’s best chance to host a World Cup in the foreseeable future.

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