Uefa must learn from past mistakes and focus on fans and football rather than money, the Westminster Chaplain for Sport has said.
Mgr Vladimir Felzmann’s comments came as football fans took to social media branding European football’s governing body an ‘absolute disgrace’ and criticised them for ruining a momentous London derby following Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal in the Europa League final.
In the weeks leading up to the match, football fans from both sides had complained about the choice of Baku, Azerbaijan, for the final, pointing out the difficulty to get there. There are only three scheduled flights per week between London and the Azerbaijan capital, but all seats were already sold out in the days before and after the match before the finalists were decided.
In addition, disabled fans voiced their frustration, telling Channel 4 News that the challenge was even more unfeasible for them due to the shortage of accessible hotel rooms, the difficult route to the ground and a stadium that couldn’t guarantee wheelchair users a decent view of the pitch.
This led to only around 5,000 home-based supporters making the journey to Azerbaijan, with Chelsea sending almost half of their allocation back unsold, which had a detrimental effect on both attendance and atmosphere, with TV pictures capturing swathes of empty seats.
Critics pointed out that had the match, which was in fact a London derby between two fierce rivals – taken place elsewhere in Europe, the stadium would have been packed out with loyal fans of both teams and been a proper end-of-season spectacle.
As a final insult, those who did attend complained of the distance between the supporters and the action due to the wide track between the stands and the pitch.
Mgr Felzmann, who is also CEO of the John Paul II Foundation for Sport, labelled the choice of venue “a disgrace to the beautiful game”.
“It presents further evidence that – for Uefa – money has a louder voice than the cries of the fans and in particular those with physical disabilities,” he told The Catholic Universe.
He highlighted a further controversy surrounding the location, which came from an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and led to Arsenal’s Armenian star Henrikh Mkhitaryan opting not to travel, while it was reported that fans there with his name on their shirts were being stopped by police in Baku ‘for their safety’ and asked to change their clothing.
Mgr Felzmann argued that choosing such a location was “practically censoring” certain stars, who could have a major impact on the game.
“Maybe, with Henrikh Mkhitraryan on the pitch, Arsenal may not have been so heavily beaten. Who knows? But practically censoring talent tilts the proverbial level playing field,” he said.
Mgr Felzmann also criticised the decision for Baku’s Olympic Stadium to host Euro 2020, with three Group A matches set to be played there, as well as a quarter final.
“Why on earth choose Azerbaijan to host a part of Euro 2020?” he asked. “Uefa should bear in mind the collateral damage its decisions generate – and rethink its future plans. It is never to late to learn from its past mistakes, repent and move forward with more grace.”
Picture: Arsenal fans in the stands with empty seats during the UEFA Europa League final. (Steven Paston/PA).