Everyone wins at the Champions League final. Except football fans. European football’s showpiece occasion has grown into a fiesta of greed. Supporters know it, but they are drawn to the game’s avaricious siren call anyway.
As many as 100,000 supporters of the English Premier League clubs Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will flood Madrid this Saturday. Fewer than a third will have acquired tickets from the clubs they support.
Each finalist was allocated 16,613 match tickets for a stadium that holds 63,500. The rest are shared around the “Uefa family,” a dysfunctional grouping that includes officials and friends of European football’s ruling body, national associations, the local organising committee, broadcasters, commercial partners and corporate hospitality companies.
Even before touts get involved, prices are eye-watering. The cheapest tickets are £60 but only about 20 per cent of the seats are in this range. More than half cost £154, another 20 per cent go for £385, and 5 per cent cost £513. Each. Hardly the People’s Game.
At least Madrid has the capacity to handle an influx of tourists. The Spanish capital has an international airport, more than 70,000 hotel rooms and a substantial AirBnB market. Naturally, prices have been hiked substantially – flights and accommodation are going for a minimum of four times the usual rate – but at least supporters can get there.
The other Uefa signature club game, the Europa League final, took place in Baku last night. The airport in Azerbaijan’s capital could handle only 15,000 passengers over the period needed to service the event. Like the Champions League final, this game featured two clubs from the English Premier League, both from London. Arsenal and Chelsea were granted just 12,000 tickets between them. They returned more than half their paltry allocations. Was this the moment Uefa finally pushed its paying customers too far?
“It might look that way because Arsenal and Chelsea have two of the richest fan bases in football, but it’s a peculiar set of circumstances,” David Bick, a football finance expert from Square One Consulting, said.
“The Europa League is nowhere near as glamorous as the Champions League and Uefa misjudged the [choice of] venue badly. If the Baku final was in a more accessible place, the tickets would sell out immediately. If it was the Champions League, people would find a way of getting to Azerbaijan and the tickets would be snapped up.”
The selection process for this year’s finals was launched in December 2016. Two months later it was announced that Madrid’s then unfinished Wanda Metropolitano and Baku’s Olympic Stadium were the only contenders.
Azerbaijan was implicitly ruled out of the Champions League bidding when the evaluation report was published the following September. “The number of hotel rooms within a 60km radius of the stadium falls short… and would allow the city to accommodate only a very limited number of fans and visitors, including Uefa’s key target groups in standard hotels,” the inspectors said of Baku. “Mitigation measures such as camp sites, university dormitories or guest houses would need to be investigated.”
Madrid got the big game and Azerbaijan’s consolation prize was the Europa League final. At this point, nearly two years ago, the ruling body and the main Champions League sponsors – Expedia, Gazprom, Heineken, Mastercard, Nissan, PepsiCo, Santander and Sony Playstation – began to book prime accommodation in Madrid. Their Europa League counterparts, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, FedEx, Hankook Tire, Kia Motors and Heineken (using its Amstel brand) did likewise in Baku.
Well-meaning pundits who suggest the venue be changed to save supporters from the same city or country travelling thousands of miles should save their breath. The locations are locked in as soon as Uefa makes its decision.
It would take a natural disaster or violent political upheaval to cause a change of plan. Last year’s final in Kiev went ahead even though conflict between Ukraine and Russian separatists rumbled on less than 400 miles from the fan parks and celebrations.
There are clear benefits for host cities. Madrid Destino, a civic company that manages tourism and local events, estimates that this weekend’s final will generate about £49.5 million for the city. Outlay is involved – December’s Copa Libertadores final (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) between River Plate and Boca Juniors, which was moved from Buenos Aires because of fan violence, cost nearly £574,000 on National Police deployment alone – but Madrid will make a hefty profit.
There is also a knock-on effect. Uefa estimates a global television audience of about 400 million people in more than 200 countries. Coverage before, during and after the game generates free publicity for the city and Madrid Destino believes many first-time visitors among the match-goers will come back to experience the historic plazas when they are not crammed with football fans.
It makes the point, however, that the Champions League final can be trumped by less obtrusive events. The annual gathering of the European Society for Medical Oncology will take place in the city in September next year and is expected to draw 25,000 people. Madrid Destino’s financial models predict that this convention will inject more than £57 million into the economy over four days. Delegates will be less visible than Liverpool and Tottenham supporters but are likely to spend more – and cause less damage.
Azerbaijan’s rationale for wanting to bring big games to Baku was less about football’s economic boost than an attempt to wield “soft power” through sport. The country is rich in oil and gas and has had a Formula 1 grand prix for the past three seasons. But the attempt to gain prestige and good publicity from the Europa League final backfired as it became clear the city’s infrastructure could not support Uefa’s secondary showpiece.
A further blow came when it emerged that Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder, did not feel it was safe to travel to Baku. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been involved in a border conflict since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The situation reflects badly on Uefa and the host government, which has refused visas to supporters with Armenian names. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, raised the issue in Parliament last week.
Uefa are keen that this row does not escalate. Some observers wondered why Arsenal, in particular, and Chelsea, did not object to the location of the game and Mkhitaryan’s absence more robustly, but other issues are occurring behind the scenes at European football’s headquarters in the Swiss city of Nyon.
The ruling body charged Manchester City with flouting Financial Fair Play rules this month. Both London clubs are suspicious of City’s spending and dominance on the domestic scene. The Premier League champions are owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and a Uefa source said: “This is not a dispute with a club but a battle with an Emirate. It’s football against a country.”
It is no time to rock the boat, no matter how unhappy Arsenal and Chelsea were about Baku.
As for the fans who could not get to Baku, Uefa was unrepentant. A number of Europa League finals have failed to capture the public imagination. In 2014, Sevilla and Benfica came nowhere near to filling Juventus Stadium in Turin and the next year the Spanish club returned to the final to play Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in front of a sparse crowd in Warsaw.
Still, it will be a full house in Madrid. Liverpool and Tottenham supporters will descend on the city using a wide assortment of inventive routes. The game’s significance makes it worthwhile.
Saturday will be the second successive Champions League final for Jurgen Klopp’s men, but Spurs have reached the big game for the first time. Events like this do not come along too often. Plenty of supporters are willing to empty their bank accounts to be present, even if it means watching on television in a bar.
Their experience of the Spanish capital will be slightly strange. They will find streets and plazas taken over by corporate areas. They will take selfies in front of a giant inflatable trophy in the Plaza de Oriente. A stage will dominate the Puerta del Sol. PlayStation fans will face down each other by playing Fifa 19 in the Plaza Mayor. Every conceivable item of Champions League tat will be on sale at an impromptu superstore in Plaza del Callao. A great city will become one of the interchangeable annual backdrops to Uefa’s carnival of avarice.
The American rock band Imagine Dragons will perform before the game, courtesy of Pepsi. Last year in Kiev, Liverpool fans bounced and squealed while Dua Lipa belted out ‘One Kiss’. It was nothing like the singing that made the Kop famous. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and Tottenham’s slow, deep ‘When The Spurs Go Marching In’ chant do not really have a place on Uefa’s stage.
The future of football will be on show in the Wanda stadium on Saturday. Uefa’s motto should be greed, geopolitics and Gazprom.
All photographs by Getty Images