After Baku, Tbilisi bids to host Europa League final
GENEVA (AP) — Despite the trouble surrounding the Europa League final in Azerbaijan this week, the competition could go back to the Caucasus region in two years.
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is bidding against the Spanish city of Seville to host the 2021 title game in the second-tier competition.
The Football Supporters Europe network, which is UEFA's official adviser on fan issues, believes Tbilisi can be better than Baku.
"I think Georgia is an attractive destination for fans," the fan group's CEO, Ronan Evain, told The Associated Press in Baku. "It's relatively easy to access, with direct flights from Germany, England, France."
This year, Arsenal and Chelsea fans on charter flights to Baku were paying more than $1,000, though some took a cheaper option by flying to Tbilisi and then traveling by bus into Azerbaijan. Return tickets from Gatwick airport in London to Tbilisi with Georgian Airways can cost less than $250, but don't fly daily.
Georgia has had some success in hosting UEFA events in the past. The country held the Super Cup in August 2015 with Champions League winner Barcelona beating Europa League champion Sevilla 5-4 in extra time in front of almost 52,000 spectators.
"Everybody remembers this match and everybody was satisfied," Georgian soccer federation secretary general David Mujiri told the AP in a recent interview. "We have shown to the public we can be a good host."
Mujiri makes a case similar to Baku's before it beat Istanbul in a UEFA vote — that big games cannot always go to established soccer cities.
"If everything is centralized, it gives nothing to the development of football," he said. "The discussion is without any respect for European supporters."
Baku was also criticized for allowing political tensions, between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia, to affect the game. Armenia's best player, Arsenal forward Henrikh Mkhitaryan, did not travel citing concerns for his safety.
Georgia has a "very problematic politicization of big chunks of the fan base," said Evain, highlighting "a topic of concern if the game would be awarded to Georgia."
UEFA gave its first diversity award last year to Georgian national team player Guram Kashia for his gesture of wearing a rainbow armband as captain of a Dutch team before he joined the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer.
"Kashia's gesture was greeted with an extremely negative and hostile response in certain quarters in his native Georgia," UEFA said last August.
Still, Tbilisi could lose out to Sevilla by a simple East-West divide on Sept. 24 when the UEFA executive committee chooses the venues for the 2021 finals.
With the Champions League final favored to go to St. Petersburg over Munich, the balanced view has Spain getting the Europa League final.