The Road to Baku – Part 1

the road to baku

Had I not paid the guts of £700 to get there, going to Baku to watch Arsenal would have proved a lucrative exercise for me. Ordinarily, a two and a half week gap between the final match of the Premier League season and a showpiece European final might feel cavernous. But the game has scarcely evacuated the news cycle in the build-up, as poor ticket sales, insufficient transport infrastructure, the cost of travel and the fact that one of Arsenal’s players cannot compete due to his nationality have kept the spotlight on UEFA’s decision to award this final to Baku.

I am one of the hardy souls taking the journey to the brink of the Caspian sea and mainstream outlets have become increasingly interested in speaking to the small, privileged group of us that have been able to circumnavigate the obstacles UEFA have presented to travel to the game. BBC London, BBC and the Guardian have been in contact with me in recent days and I have solicited all of their advances. This is an expensive trip and you better believe I am going to leverage the shit out of it for content.

And where better to leverage it than the site where I enjoy regular residence? I am going to chart the experience for you dear reader – the late night airports, the slaloming between time-zones and a huge final played in front of rows of empty seats for your delectation over the next few days. It is safe to say I never envisaged having to book six flights and apply for two visas to go to and from a London derby, but here we are. (I also didn’t think I would ever have to leave four days before the game took place either).

I don’t really have an idea of how this diary will turn out because I don’t really know what to expect from this trip. It feels more like a trip to a bog standard group stage away game than a big final given the numbers attending. I attend away matches with a group of nine other people. Only two of us are fortunate enough to be able to make this journey. And we are fortunate and privileged.

I have been planning for this journey for the best part of the season. Usually I attend all European away matches – maybe I’ll miss one or two depending on circumstances. This season, I have only been to two (Lisbon and Valencia). I am not indignant about that, I have no divine right to attend all of these games. Being able to attend even one Arsenal match abroad is a position of privilege – in terms of having the money to be able to do it (just!) and the lifestyle that permits it.

I was able to take a long run-up at this trip because this is my lifestyle. I am plugged into the idea of taking every advantage available, of loading up Skyscanner at the opportune moment, of organising my work diary so there are no unwanted clashes. Most people cannot do this, hence the low ticket sales. It’s a very niche group of individuals who can book a flight to Baku and take four days off work at three weeks’ notice.

Personally, I gambled and booked my outbound journey just before the semi-final second leg. I am not so wealthy that I wouldn’t miss £250, but I weighed up my options and thought booking at that price before qualification was guaranteed represented a fair gamble. My travelling companion, Tim, was smarter than I, he booked his journey in advance and immediately bet £100 on Valencia to win at 4/1 to cover any loss. This is the level of preparation required, even for the privileged.

I don’t want the tone of this diary to be superior, I don’t kid myself that I am providing some kind of service so that the plebs can experience a final vicariously through me. I also don’t want to fall into the ‘Orientalism’ trap as set out by postcolonial professor Edward Said. Azerbaijan is far from London, but I don’t want this diary to come across as some virtuous white bloke riding fearlessly into the land of dragons and fire.

I am certain that Baku is perfectly nice and I look forward to finding out. But clearly flying 3,000 miles for a London derby in Arsenal’s most important game in a generation is, if not a human interest story, something that arouses curiosity. So allow me to try and sate your burning curiosity over the coming days with this diary charting the experience. I hope you enjoy.

We’re on our waaaaaay…..