Match day in Baku and the anticipation is building. Slightly and slowly. The Old Town was far busier with Arsenal fans last night, in contrast to Monday night’s small but polite gathering. Personally, I resolved to abstain from alcohol all day yesterday to give myself a good run up at today, so I gave the festivities a miss. Some friends of mine did venture into Old Town for liquid refreshment and in seeing them off, the scenes were slightly more rambunctious than they had been 24 hours earlier.
The distant rumble of Arsenal songs could be heard from a couple of blocks away, the roads were jammed to the brim with taxis who, during the course of Tuesday, have begun to not so gently raise their prices. The Old Town also had a bit of police presence as greater numbers of fans congregated in beer and song. From what I am told, it was all friendly enough. As more fans arrive, it is clear that Arsenal will handily outnumber Chelsea in the stadium tonight. I have only seen one group of Chelsea fans that have arrived from London so far.
After collecting our tickets yesterday afternoon, Tim and I frequented a very pleasant, but deserted German themed beer hall, before meeting our friend Adam for dinner. Frankly, there is not much to see or do in Baku. It is a perfectly pleasant, friendly city, but it is short of genuine attractions at this point in its development. With an 11pm kickoff local time, match day is going to be a long and tiring one.
The stadium is slightly out of the city centre and we have decided to avoid Old Town later today due to the likely weight of numbers. We will search for somewhere for a hearty meal and, given a lack of other options, likely find a bar to settle into from late afternoon. Our hotel is slightly away from the town centre, the struggle to explain the location to confused looking taxi drivers is becoming a thematic struggle of the trip – especially as there is a much more prominent hotel of the exact same name in the area.
A cab driver tried to charge me 50 manat (about 23 pounds) for his troubles last night- more than double the agreed fare (which was already set pretty steep) and the language barrier proved useful on this occasion. I didn’t really have the energy to argue so I stuffed 25 manat into his hand and left the vehicle apparently oblivious to his complaints.
I am hearing disconcertingly regular stories of travelling fans having their accommodation cancelled at less than 24 hours notice. An Arsenal fan who had booked for him and 15 others suffered this injustice on the day of arrival. I suspect a lot of hotels in the area are in cahoots and redistributing their suddenly empty rooms to desperate tourists willing to pay over the odds to secure rooms having had their cancelled elsewhere. A frantic last minute economy is good for business and plenty of local property-listers seem to be at it.
Match day is upon us and, honestly, it still doesn’t feel like the build up to a huge final yet. It still feels a little remote – like being part of a small travelling circus. However, by nature, I like to stay away from the beaten track a little for European aways, which might be influencing my perception. There again, I am not entirely sure there is a beaten track for the small number of us that have been able to make it. I imagine once I am through the turnstiles and inside the Olympic Stadium, that will change. It’s going to be a long, draining day ahead. I hope to write you tomorrow with the good type of hangover.