This week I made the trip to Azerbaijan to watch Arsenal face Qarabag, in the club’s first-ever match in the country, and it was all a bit of an adventure.
As you’d expect, just getting to the game was a fair trek from London. Around 12 hours on flights and in airports each way, plus the struggle to navigate public transport in a country where I don’t speak the language.
Knowing this would be the case, I left plenty of time to complete my journey and ended up arriving many hours before the game.
With no phone data (thanks EE!) and having travelled on my own, I took the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere around the ground, and to get some pictures of what is actually a very beautiful stadium.
— Dan Critchlow (@afcDW) October 4, 2018
One thing I immediately understood was the excitement of the locals. Throughout the day there were supporters chanting as they walked down the streets. Every hotel concierge, airport employee and taxi driver wanted a chat about the match. Young fans asked to take selfies with anyone wearing an Arsenal shirt.
When I finally got into the ground, the mood was no different. There were cheers for the Qarabag players shown on the big screen, whistles if the TV operator dared to show the Arsenal support, and even the stewards couldn’t help themselves dancing and chanting along with the club song.
For some reason, there was also a lot of love for Mesut Özil. Most of you probably heard the cheers when the German came on late in the game, but he inspired just as positive a reaction when his image flashed up on the display pre-match. A group of Qarabag fans near me chanted “Mesut! Mesut! Mesut!” in anticipation of his substitution.
The chance to watch an international superstar playing in your country clearly doesn’t come around too often for those in Baku.
For all the excitement, things didn’t all run smoothly in the stadium, at first.
The drinks the vendors were selling appeared to all have been shaken up, as the man opening mine discovered when it ended up all over him.
Whoever was in charge of the pre-match music seemed to think they were editing together a Christopher Nolan movie, cutting back and forth between songs. The volume went from deafening to inaudible and cut out altogether at times, with no explanation.
When I tried to get to my seat, the bemused stewards discovered it had been covered up with the police barrier between the Arsenal and Qarabag fans.
An Arsenal representative came over to try and figure out how to resolve the problem, stadium security argued among themselves over whose fault it was, a UEFA representative turned up at one point and told us the barrier would be moved (it wasn’t).
The main problem was no one spoke the same language, meaning English officials struggled to explain to Azerbaijani stewards why the canvas was causing an issue.
Meanwhile, a couple of Russian-speaking Arsenal fans, who were in the wrong block, kept coming back every five minutes because they didn’t understand why they were being sent away. The chaos kept things entertaining if nothing else!
Eventually, I just sat on the nearest seat to mine and we all hoped that wouldn’t be a problem.
I was pleasantly surprised to see almost the entire 60,000-seater stadium fill up with fans, who carried their pre-match enthusiasm into the game. I don’t know how much it came across on TV, but every time Qarabag had a chance you felt like the roof was about to come off from the noise.
Surrounded by a number of Arsenal supporters who live too far away to regularly attend matches, the atmosphere in the away end was just as much fun. There was a group from the UAE, the aforementioned Russians, Azerbaijani locals, Arsenal Iraq, and many more. All greatly enjoying the chance to see their team play.
One English Arsenal fan decided it would be a good idea to chant “we love Mkhitaryan” across the barrier at the police repeatedly, after the controversy surrounding the player’s ineligibility for the match. I can’t say that was particularly smart, but he didn’t get much of a reaction.
On the pitch, it was great to see Sokratis, Smith Rowe and Guendouzi score their first competitive Arsenal goals. For Smith Rowe and Guendouzi, their first senior goals for any club. Bernd Leno won some doubters over as well with a few top saves, and the Gunners came away with the three points.
Given my lack of phone data, I decided to stick with some other Arsenal fans until I could find my way back to the bus stop. As it turned out, those supporters had almost as little idea about where they were going as I did, so we all followed the crowd.
Our group ended up on a “shortcut” to the main road discovered by the locals. All you had to do was climb up a series of six-foot walls. This was harder for some than others.
Fortunately, all the Qarabag fans were eager to help pull everyone up. That’s apart from one guy taking pictures, and another streaming the climb to his Periscope followers.
Here’s the climb as seen from above on Google Maps:
In the end, I made it back to the airport and headed on home. Overall, it was certainly a worthwhile experience, even if it didn’t all go according to plan. If you ever get the chance to go on a European away day, I’d recommend taking it!