In April 2017, The Guardian reported that “Azerbaijan’s ruling elite operated a secret $2.9bn (£2.2bn) scheme to pay prominent Europeans through a network of opaque British companies.
Leaked data shows that the Azerbaijani leadership made more than 16,000 covert payments since 2012. Some of this money went to politicians, journalists and other officials as part of an international lobbying operation to deflect criticism of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and to promote a positive image of his oil-rich country.”
5 months after the publication of this report, the Baku Olympic Stadium was selected as the venue by the UEFA Executive Committee.
As well as the Europa League Final, the Azerbaijan football association also bid to host the 2019 Champions League final.
In recent years, Azerbaijan was also selected to host the 2015 European Games (athletics), 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, 2011 AIBA World Boxing Championships, 2010 European Wrestling Championships, 2009 Rhythmic Gymnastics European Championships, 2014 European Taekwondo Championships, 2014 Rhythmic Gymnastics European Championships, and 2016 World Chess Olympiad.
In 2016 the country hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix.
One of the reported aims of the lobbying operation was to attract major events to Azerbaijan in an attempt to portray the country in a more “positive light” and deflect from various reports of election corruption and Human Rights abuse.
A report by an Amnesty International researcher in October 2015 stated that ‘Azerbaijan has been allowed to get away with unprecedented levels of repression and in the process almost wipe out its civil society’.
Amnesty’s 2015/16 annual report on the country stated ‘persecution of political dissent continued. Human rights organizations remained unable to resume their work.
Reprisals against independent journalists and activists persisted both in the country and abroad, while their family members also faced harassment and arrests.
International human rights monitors were barred and expelled from the country. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment persisted.’
According to Freedom House, in 2015 Azerbaijan authorities used spurious charges & investigations to shut down media organisations and detain several prominent journalists, bloggers, and freedom of expression advocates. Violence against journalists continued throughout the year.
Azerbaijan had the biggest number of journalists imprisoned in Europe and Central Asia in 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and is the 5th most censored country in the world, ahead of Iran and China.
In 2018, President Aliyev was elected to a fourth term in a process that lacked genuine competition, amid evidence of electoral fraud and tight restrictions on the media and opposition.
The 2019 Freedom House report on Azerbaijan declared that ‘corruption is rampant, and following years of persecution, formal political opposition is weak. The regime has overseen an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism.’
In April 2018 President Ilham Aliyev was elected to a fourth term in a process that lacked genuine competition, amid evidence of electoral fraud and tight restrictions on the media and opposition. At the time opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov in prison on politically motivated charges. He was released in August after 5 years in jail. However, other opposition figures faced arrest and imprisonment during the year.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) state that ‘terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan. Attacks could be indiscriminate and against civilian targets, including places frequented by foreigners, such as international hotels, restaurants and pubs.’
They also advise to ‘keep well away from any large gatherings.’
In 2016, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILG) ranked Azerbaijan as the worst place in Europe to be LGBT, citing “a near total absence of legal protection” for LGBT individuals.
In September 2017, Azerbaijani police arrested dozens as part of a crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people
Despite human rights infringements, a lack of press freedom, a clear threat of terrorism and Azerbaijan being labelled as “not free”; the likes of UEFA, the IAAF and the FIA have all awarded Azerbaijan major events in recent years.
In 2015, Henrikh Mkhitaryan – then of Borussia Dortmund – did not travel for a Europa League tie as his safety could not be guaranteed following strained relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Earlier this season Mkhitaryan was once more left at home when Arsenal played Qarabag in Baku. In a statement, Arsenal said ‘acceptable guarantees (from UEFA) had not been received yet’ for Mkhitaryan’s safety.
It is unlikely that anyone with an Armenian passport, or dual British-Armenian nationality will be able to attend the final making a mockery of UEFAs “Football for Everyone” slogan.
Despite knowledge that an international captain would potentially be excluded from the final based on the country he represents, UEFA still gave the final to Baku and Azerbaijan.
UEFA gave the country the Europa League final despite knowing that its airport and infrastructure was unsuitable for huge numbers of travellers entering in a short period of time.
Baku is served by Heydar Aliyev International Airport. In 2018, approximately 6,000 passengers a day used the airport to enter Azerbaijan.
In a statement following the announcement that Arsenal and Chelsea would only receive 6,000 tickets each, UEFA admitted that more 15,000 flying into Baku was “not a reasonable option” and travelling fans would not “be able to arrange suitable travel to reach Baku.”
In 2015, an International Civil Aviation Organisation audit of aviation safety oversight found that the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Azerbaijan was below the global average.
With such poor infrastructure and a history of exclusion, Arsenal are right to question how UEFA awarded the final to Baku over Seville in Spain.
Azerbaijan is a country riddled by corruption with a history of human rights breaches and where there is no press freedom.
$2.9bn has been spent lobbying politicians, officials and journalists throughout Europe. Since this state supported operation began, Azerbaijan has won numerous major sporting events, including athletics, motor racing and football. All to deflect attention away from their problems in an attempt to show the country in a more positive light.
In 2015, FIFA faced a corruption scandal following bidding processes behind the awarding of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to Russia and the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar. In November 2014.
The question needs to be asked: What was the reason UEFA awarded the 2019 Europa League final to Baku?