Earlier this month, representatives from Football Supporters Europe (FSE) visited Baku (Azerbaijan), where this season’s UEFA Europa League (UEL) final will be held. The purpose of the visit was to assess the city’s preparations for the fixture, with a specific focus on the Olympic Stadium. In addition to the usual meetings with UEFA representatives and Azerbaijani officials, FSE also consulted local supporters’ groups, human rights activists, and journalists.
The final will take place on Wednesday 29th May at 23:00 (local time).
While Baku has a lot to offer visitors, the 2019 UEL Final will take place in a challenging environment, and FSE have concerns that we hope will be addressed in the coming months.
According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 World Report, the human rights situation is critical. In the context of the UEL Final, this is problematic on two levels. First, it limits the ability of outside organisations to access accurate information on the state of the preparations and the political dimension of the event. Second, it has the potential to dampen the festive atmosphere one expects from a major sporting event and undermine its inclusivity.
Azerbaijan also has a poor record when it comes to LGBT+ rights, with the ILGA-Rainbow Index ranking it as the worst state in Europe for gay and trans citizens. This is particularly worrying given the growing number of LGBT+ fan groups who are likely to follow their team all the way to the final.
FSE have received assurances from UEFA that they are committed to organising the final in line with the United Nations’ ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ and other relevant conventions. UEFA also stated that they would liaise with local authorities to ensure members of the LGBT+ community feel safe and welcome during their stay in Azerbaijan. FSE are monitoring the situation carefully and will update LGBT+ fan groups in due course.
Football supporters in Azerbaijan are also regularly targeted by the authorities. Minor offences can often lead to a period of administrative detention ranging up to eight weeks. This repressive atmosphere is compounded by a heavy police presence, which is immediately noticeable to an outside observer. It is important to note, however, that there is a limited risk of arrest or imprisonment for foreign fans. The probable outcome in the case of a minor offence will be deportation.
Citizens of most countries from the UEFA region will need to apply for a visa before their arrival in Azerbaijan. Applications have to be made online and cost 20 USD – or up to 50 USD for expedited processing (3 hours). FSE would advise travelling fans to apply at least 10 days before their planned date of departure.
Worryingly, the visa application process requires mandatory disclosure of a person’s HIV status. While it is unclear whether the application can be denied on this basis, FSE believe it violates the right to equal protection under the law. In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly issued a Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS which specifically encouraged member states to remove any existing HIV-related travel restrictions.
Following an inquiry from FSE, UEFA informed us that they are liaising with the Azerbaijani authorities toensure that anyone wishing to attend the final or UEFA EURO 2020 matches can do so irrespective of theirhealth status. FSE welcome UEFA’s immediate response and efforts on this subject but remain adamant that only full removal of the restrictions would be a positive outcome.
UEFA TICKETING POLICY
Finally, the announcement on ticketing policy for the final raises questions related to both the finalists’ allocation and the specific Azerbaijani context. With 37,500 tickets available to the general public, which represents an all-time record of 58% of the overall capacity, FSE fear that the number of tickets reserved for supporters of the two finalists will be exceptionally low. FSE representative Martin Endemann commented: “While we acknowledge that visiting Baku will require time and money, fans will travel no matter what. UEFA should take into consideration that it is the supporters of the finalists who are the most likely to travel to Azerbaijan, not the general public.”
Access to the country is indeed limited to three international airports (Baku, Gandja and Qabala), which are mostly connected to Russia and Turkey. “Taking into consideration the high percentage of tickets madeavailable for the general public and the difficulties to travel to Baku, it is FSE’s understanding that theorganisers are relying on the local fans to fill the stadium”, Endemann added. This could prove difficult considering the ticket prices, which may be perfectly affordable for most traveling fans, but will likely be beyond the means of most local football lovers. Indeed, tickets start at 30 EUR in a city where the average monthly salary is 220EUR and the nationwide minimum salary is 70 EUR. In a country which often resorts to mobilising civil servants or forcing other groups to attend public events, this ticketing policy carries the risk of serious abuse. FSE is particularly worried about forced ticket sales, a phenomenon alleged to have occurred during the 2012 Eurovision song contest and the 2016 New Year’s Eve concert at the Olympic Stadium.
In light of these challenges, FSE expect the Azerbaijani authorities to guarantee the safety and basic civil rights of all fans attending the final. Moreover, FSE hope that the UEL Final will draw attention to the difficulties outlined above.
Image: ‘Flame Towers of Baku’ by wilth (Flickr)