International Sport Returns to Baku
Despite the Covid pandemic, June 2021 is proving a sparkling month for sport in Baku.
Switzerland's Mario Gavranovic celebrates scoring a goal that is later disallowed by VAR for offside. Baku Olympic Stadium, Baku, Azerbaijan - June 12, 2021. REUTERS/Tolga Bozoglu
On the 6th, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix once again brought Formula One to the streets of the capital. Racing drivers’ cab-cams showed not only the thrills of the contest but also the spectacular city-scapes of Baku as the vehicles hurtled around the specially re-surfaced 6km loop of downtown streets. Held in Baku since 2016, the grand prix’ challenging course often makes for an eventful race, and this year’s proved particularly thrilling. Lewis Hamilton, winner here in 2018, overtook pole-starter Charles Leclerc on lap 2 (of 51). Slow pitstops in laps 13 and 14 and a crash on lap 35 saw a super-tight restart of the race and the miraculous avoidance of a pile-up. Max Verstappen, lead for much of the second half of the race, was well out in front until just five laps before the flag. However, while apparently cruising to victory, his Red Bull Honda suffered a rear tyre blowout, crashing at 200mph on the Boulevard opposite the Hilton Hotel. With his tyres smoking visibly at the next restart, Lewis Hamilton managed to overshoot a turn leaving Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel leading with an exciting last-lap duel for third between Leclerc and Pierre Gasli.
For the press, the abiding image of the race was that of a frustrated Verstappen kicking his punctured tyre. For Azerbaijan, it was of a job well done, showcasing the remarkable charms of Baku and further raising the image of the country as a world force in international events. For many Baku citizens, the feeling was one of relief that an end would finally be in sight to the weeks of traffic chaos and transport inconvenience caused by all the guard rails and closed roads — an inevitable consequence of hosting a street course of this type.
Less than a week later, a whole new series of sports folk had arrived in Baku. Euro 2020 (or more fully the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship) is a prominent soccer tournament between European national teams that, in principle, is held every four years… though Euro 2020 has essentially become Euro 2021 due to postponement because of Covid restrictions.
Also unusual in this year’s version is that the venues are not all located in a single country. Instead, for the tournament’s 60th anniversary, the games have been spread across 11 different host cities in 10 countries (or 11 if England and Scotland are counted as two rather than as the UK). One of these is Baku, whose vast 68,700-capacity Olympic stadium was one of those selected.
The first of four Euro2020 games held here was June 12’s Wales-Switzerland fixture. For much of the British press, the main concern seemed to be Covid questions - whether or not fans should be going out to the game given the UK’s still uncertain attitude towards foreign travel. Azerbaijan has been on the UK’s ‘amber list’ of countries to which travel is not completely banned but to which it is discouraged.
Future Euro 2020 matches in Baku:
June 16: Turkey – Wales
June 20: Switzerland – Turkey
July 2: Quarterfinal 3
In the stadium, photos of the day showed around 7000 spectators very widely spread across the acres of stand, including hundreds from Wales’ ‘Red Wall’ of supporters who had managed to turn up. Around 120 arrived on a special Wizz Air flight from Cardiff airport that, according to one fan, made the whole process “remarkably easy in the end, if a tad expensive.” The ease was also thanks to special travel rules instituted for the games. For holders of Euro2020 tickets, the Azerbaijani authorities have temporarily suspended the requirement for visitors to prove full Covid vaccination or to quarantine on arrival - providing that they can show a negative PCR test taken in the 72 hours before flying in. They’ll need to take two more on returning to Wales.
For local football fans, there were different deterrents against heading to the game. Though it’s near a central metro station, travel arrangements to the stadium on big event days are frequently tiresome due to very widely spread checkpoints. At the 2019 Europa League final, one attendee complained that getting there had taken longer than the match itself lasted. Another bone of contention is the cost of tickets which, at AZN60, 150 and 250, are fairly pricey in relation to local incomes.
The Wales-Switzerland match started off something of a disappointment in terms of action, despite a superb save in the 15th minute. However, the second half warmed up considerably with some impressive skills from the Swiss goal-scorer Breel Embolo and a surprise Welsh equalizer from Kieffer Moore, following which “The small Welsh contingent in Baku [made] enough noise for 40,000!” according to the Guardian’s Scott Murray. The nail-biting last minutes included an apparent Swiss winner by just-on substitute Mario Gavranović that was disallowed for offside after a lengthy debate, plus a 90th-minute Embolo-header that was turned over the bar. Though out-played, the plucky Welsh held onto a precious 1-1 draw.
For Azerbaijan, meanwhile, the match’s smooth organization was the critical point - a sign of the nation’s continued acceptance as a reliable host for major events, even under challenging circumstances. For some less sport-savvy local residents, there was a degree of confusion as to why Wales would be playing at all: in a jocular tweet, Daily Telegraph football correspondent Sam Dean described a friendly Bakuvian lady wishing well to the Gareth Bale team, without being entirely sure what that represented.