Disabled supporters have turned their backs on the Europa League final, joining a wave of dissent over Uefa’s decision to hold the showpiece event in Azerbaijan.
Arsenal and Chelsea have each sold only a single pair of tickets offering access to a disabled supporter and their assistant for Wednesday’s match in Baku’s Olympic Stadium. Arsenal have sold six pairs of easy access tickets for disabled supporters who do not require a wheelchair and Chelsea four pairs.
The price of travel, as well as the complicated and wearying logistics of travelling 2,500 miles to the former Soviet republic, have put off disabled fans. They are not alone, however. Supporters’ groups from both clubs have expressed dissatisfaction at the choice of venue, as have human rights organisations. This has led to the likelihood of swathes of empty seats, with both clubs expected to return around half of their ticket allocation; Arsenal have sold 3,500 of their 6,000 total, Chelsea 2,000.
Anthony Joy, the chairman of the Arsenal Disabled Supporters’ Association, will not be attending the match. “Simply logistically, even before the cost, it’s easily the hardest one I’ve had to plan,” he said. “I just took the decision it wasn’t going to happen.
“The problems that all Arsenal and Chelsea fans have been having around travel are the same for us, but they’re exacerbated. If I take an assistant I have to pay for their [plane] ticket too; I have to put my wheelchair in hold to save on cost. Most flights require one, or even two changes. The impact of a journey of six hours then doing another so soon after, it can be really serious.”
Complaints have not been limited to travel options. According to the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (Cafe), fans have also been faced with a shortage of accessible hotel rooms. The underground system in Baku is not accessible to wheelchair users either, and there are concerns about an absence of pavements in the route to the ground.
The 68,700-capacity stadium lacks the necessary raised platforms to guarantee wheelchair users a clear sight of the pitch. Uefa is understood to have intervened in this area, however, and insisted on rows in front of the disabled section being left empty.
A Uefa spokesperson said: “Uefa uses its finals as a platform to improve access and inclusion for disabled people. This will be the first time Azerbaijan hosts a Uefa club competition final and therefore brings a new opportunity to share this message in the region. Uefa and Cafe will continue to work with footballing stakeholders in the area to build upon the legacy of the [final] and to work towards Total Access in the lead up to Uefa Euro 2020.”
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