I am writing on Monday lunchtime and we have arrived safe and sound in Baku. We took in a quick stopover at Istanbul en route, followed by a short stop in Tbilisi where we were able to steal about three hours of sleep before heading onto Azerbaijan. As soon as you progress through arrivals, you are greeted with the visage of Mesut Ozil staring back at you.
There are posters for the final all over the city and we drove past the stadium and the fan parks on the way to our hotel. It is clear that this is a big event here. Our check-in was a bit of a heart stopping venture, where the tenants initially seemed to baulk at the idea that this was a hotel at all, let alone that they were expecting guests. But eventually, after a Google translate aided exchange, we were shown to our room and welcomed with tea and biscuits.
We have seen and spoken with a few Arsenal fans during our journey. People that I have been on ‘eyebrows’ terms with at away games for years were on our flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi and we tossed aside our previous distance, shook hands and exchanged names. This is something of an odyssey, embarking on this journey turns acquaintances to kin. You are ‘proper Arsenal.’
My early impressions of Baku from the windows of my taxi are that the place looks exactly as I imagined it. The centre is opulent, with Ferrari showrooms and any number of designer stores littering the vast sidewalks. Curvaceous buildings jut out of the horizon in the pleasing way that Arabic looking architecture does. Our balcony overlooks the Caspian Sea, whose coastline literally and symbolically defines the city.
It is overcast here, but very close and muggy. The forecast suggests temperatures will climb to 28 degrees later and that the sun will beat a path past the clouds in time. In all of the organisation and anxiety of arranging the journey here, I haven’t really figured out what to do here yet. So I will take in the piping hot milkless tea before me and hastily Google some tourist recommendations.
The excitement is becoming real now after days and weeks of chatter, of firming up plans, of fielding media requests! Other friends are on their way now, some are in Budapest, some in Sofia, one in Ankara and a few are here already. We band of brothers and sisters shall convene in the next 24 hours or so and doubtless crush a cup of wine or two.