The Europa League final is the debate that continues to give. After Arsenal confirmed that midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan would not play the final in Baku, Azerbaijan because of his Armenian heritage, reports suggest that the stadium might be half-empty for what is probably the second-largest European football game of the season.
First, a report by Sky Sports said that Arsenal and Chelsea both send thousands of tickets to the final, which they could not sell because of their remote location in remote Eastern Europe. Previously, the clubs had complained about the small allocation of tickets they received initially (only about 12,000 of the 68,700 capabilities at the Baku Olympic Stadium were reserved for the involved fans held). Since then, Arsenal and Chelsea have realized that not even 12,000 of their fans are interested in traveling 5,600 miles round trip and paying the exorbitant hotel fees that are endemic to these kinds of events.
You can understand the lack of interest from London-based fans in the journey so far and spend so much money to see the finals of Europe's JV tournament, the result of which is only important to Arsenal. However, the more amazing reports are that sponsors are now looking to return tickets. The main reason for the biggest football matches (and major sports events in general, for that matter) makes so few tickets available to the competing team fans is that tournament sponsors get a great deal as part of their offer. That is why the European finals almost always have horrible atmospheres, and this is another sign of the rare grief that animates football at the highest levels.
Due to both the remote location of the Europa League finals and concerns over the human rights violations by the Azerbaijan government against Armenians (the reason Mkhitaryan does not play in the final), the same sponsors find it difficult to find enough people willing to make the trip to Baku.
Matt Hughes from The Times wrote that all the returned tickets will be put on sale among the local Azerbaijan. The locals have already bought 23,000 tickets, but they may not be required to fill the stadium further.
What makes embarrassment even worse is how completely foreseeable this cluster fuck was. During the last decade, just two of the 20 Europa League finalists have picked up from a country outside Western Europe. UEFA had to know the exact assurance that this season's tournament could also include two Western European clubs. And yet they went ahead and set the final road into Azerbaijan anyway, knowing the logistical nightmare it would bring.
UEFA's stated justification for holding the finals in Baku as earlier this week was that it is only fair to spread the joy of a Europa League finally again, a thing that most people do not care about. so much about it! – To all parts of the continent. It seems more likely that UEFA's choice of Baku was so politically and money-motivated as all of these international sports tournament award processes are.
If only the clubs did not meet their ticket reservations, it would probably not be concerned about powers so much. But throw in the awful optics of the Mkhitaryan trial, plus UEFA's precious sponsors are not happy and you can bet things will change. Gdańsk Poland is already confined to hosting the next season last (at least closer to a centralized location, if not very glamorous), but the field is open for 2021 and beyond. Fan anger and a geopolitical fracas may not be enough to pull the Europa League finally west in the future, but money certainly as hell is.