After three weeks of pointless speculation, countless headlines, a notable uptick in traffic for Wikipedia's page on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a fusillade of open letters, an orgy of geopolitical posturing and the curious sympathetic context of an Armenian army lieutenant getting axed to death in his sleep, the 2019 Europa League Final will finally emerge from the realms of fantasy and become real this evening, as London is airlifted in the form of a blockbusting cultural event 2,800 miles east to a medieval "City of Winds" on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
At this stage, it feels reasonable to say that Baku has assumed the air of a place that resides somewhere beyond the reach of mortal experience, a distant land of dreams designed by Del Toro, Calvino, Nintendo or Namco where dogs bark rainbows and flowers ask you what day it is. There are many reasons for this, but mostly it’s because, for the last three weeks, the Azerbaijani capital has been talked about constantly by people who’ve never been there and know nothing about it. Which is totally fine. TalkSport presenters aren’t paid for their intimate knowledge of remote Eurasian petropolises, even if it's been fun listening to Alan Brazil and Jason Cundy struggle as the station’s been transformed into a weird trauma hotline for the legions of fans unable to surrender thousands of pounds and hundreds of travel hours to see their team take part in tonight's game.
Arsenal and Chelsea were handed 6,000 tickets each for the second biggest final in Europe’s club football calendar. There were concerted outpourings of rage and ridicule when the allocations were announced – Baku’s Olympic Stadium has an overall capacity of 60,000 – yet Arsenal have managed to sell just 3,700 of their quota, while Chelsea have sent 4,000 back to UEFA. The details have been pored over obsessively enough elsewhere, but a scarcity of direct flights costing in excess of £900 have pushed those hardy enough to make the journey into feats of admirable patience and masochistic ingenuity; one Chelsea fan told ITV News he'd spent a week travelling 3,500 miles to Baku, spending five different currencies in three countries along the way. At least UEFA were good enough to advise people against driving their cars to the final, a course of action that would’ve necessitated a 120-mile round trip skirting two or three active war zones.
There is no point repeating UEFA's excuses for this mess because they are all utterly fucking stupid. Adding further levels of derangement to the occasion is the fact that Arsenal's Armenian forward, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, doesn’t feel as though he can travel to Azerbaijan without his liberty or even his life coming under threat. While there are those who’ve taken potshots at Mkhitaryan for this stance, others have been shrewd enough to note that, as recently as 2012, the Azerbaijani government were extraditing then lionising one of their military officers who’d been caught standing over the body of a dead Armenian man with a massive, blood-stained axe.
UEFA and the national authorities half-heartedly tried to reassure Mkhitaryan that nothing similar would happen this time, that there would be no Ramil Safarov waiting for him in a hotel room in Baku and that, above all else, this was a sporting occasion, one unlikely to foster the kind of berserker aggression that cost Gurgen Margaryan his life back in 2006. This logic might have made more sense if Safarov and Margaryan hadn’t been studying on an English-language course organised by Nato’s "Partnership for Peace" programme at the time.
It’s one of the dawning ironies of the world we live in today that sports-washing invariably serves only to make the public more aware of awful acts perpetrated by repulsive people, something seen not just in the build-up to this final, but also at the tail end of the domestic season and the gathering noise around Manchester City. Who is all this serving, exactly? The fans can’t go, the players can’t play, UEFA look stupid and the regimes look evil. In the three-week gap that has preceded the match itself, all of this noxious fervour has been allowed to build to a whining pitch. In a weird kind of way, it feels almost appropriate, the perfect atmosphere for such an odd game, one that – shorn of real supporters and taking place in front of sponsors thousands of miles from home – is all set to feel like the biggest pre-season Gulf state friendly there has ever been.
As ever, salvation resides in London’s pubs. Tonight, those who spend inordinate amounts of time and money watching, talking and thinking about Chelsea and Arsenal will cram the capital’s sports bars and boozers, poky little armpits set up to sweat alcohol into the mouths of the faithful, noisy Foster's-top fart boxes who can’t find the time to replace the carpet but are precision-engineered to transform fluttering guts into rare moments of communal euphoria.
On hundreds of thousands of screens and projectors, people who should be at tonight’s game will see a match unfold that means so much to both clubs, a cross-city derby tasked with midwifing just one gilded new era. Granted, it’s Arsenal who need it more; Maurizio Sarri’s side are already safely qualified for next season’s Champions League, and even if they weren’t their ownership model means they’d not need to fret too much over the implications of missing out. For Arsenal and Unai Emery, this isn’t just a one-off 90 minutes to see who gets to lift up a trophy; it’s a gateway back to Europe’s top table, renewed membership of the continental elite and all the riches that brings. It’s also a chance to inoculate themselves against the horror of Spurs winning the Champions League on Saturday.
It’s testament to football’s enduring appeal that absolutely none of what I’ve discussed in this column will be present in the minds of the die-hards who’ll spend this evening drenched in booze and sweat and glued to a despot-endorsing bastard-final thousands of miles away in a petrol-dipped post-Soviet outpost of the steppes. After three weeks of diplomatic rancour, crisis calls, admin tiffs and attempts to steer the narrative, it is – mercifully – nearly time for the talking to stop.