May 31, 2019

“Together to Baku, but not you”

“Together to Baku, but not you”

UEFA, (the Union of European Football Associations), is currently under enormous scrutiny and battling against significant (self-inflicted) damage to its reputation.

But what has UEFA done? And how should they have handled it?

Where’s Baku?

This year’s Europa League final was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. All well and good you might think, better than another final in a Western European ‘elite’ nation. But in fact all is not well.

Firstly UEFA announced that only 6,000 tickets would be available for each of the UEFA Europa League’s final playing teams’ fans. Both finalists have tens of thousands of season ticket holders and hundreds of thousands of fans around the world who would have been interested in attending the Final.

UEFA has said that the allocation was due to the number of people Baku’s only airport can deal with per day; 15,000.

The journey wouldn’t have been much fun either – or cheap. A trip to Baku for most fans would involve lengthy stop-overs in Turkey or France, meaning that some journeys could take 23 hours and several visas.

No Henrikhs allowed

It’s not just logistics at issue here. Ongoing political tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia meant that one of Arsenal’s players, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, was left out of the fixture due to safety concerns.

This is in fact the second time this issue has arisen this season after the player was left out of a European away leg when Arsenal played Qarabag FK (an Azerbaijani football club) during a group stage match in October.

Since Henrikh and Arsenal made the decision UEFA have issued a statement declaring a “comprehensive security plan” was in place for the player – but not one that satisfied Arsenal’s duty of care to one of their players.

Decisions, decisions

The decision to pick Baku was made public in September 2017 and even though the teams participating in the final weren’t certain until the 2nd of May, that was no reason for UEFA not to anticipate potential issues with travel or with Armenian players being part of the final’s teams. Their own rules state that Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot be drawn in the same group for international competitions.

This has left UEFA open to criticism that they have let their decision making process be influenced – why pick Baku when there are so many issues that should make holding a final there impossible?

This goes to prove that every organisation needs to have a PR professional in the board room to act as a voice of the businesses stakeholders. Public relations, contrary to popular perception, is just as much about listening as it is about talking. A good PR practitioner would have spotted these issues a mile off and advised against holding the final in Baku.

(Not) claiming the high ground

Even in their reaction to this crisis as it developed UEFA seemed to make missteps. This was summed up by their attempt to appeal to Arsenal’s honour as ‘men of sport’.

Of course, that’s not the best thing to say when you’re trying to launch your first ever women’s football strategy – a five year plan that aims to support, guide, and lift women’s football across Europe.

Errors like this are unacceptable. Not only does it trivialise both issues, but it reinforces the perception people have of men’s football, that it’s an old boys club that is not paying due attention to the important and influential place it holds in the world.

Share this article