Does ANYONE really think that staging an all-English Champions League final in Turkey, when it is suffering from some of the highest covid infection rates in Europe, is actually a good idea?
Of course, we can all see logistical, financial and political reasons why it might be difficult for UEFA to change the venue… but who genuinely thinks that any of those reasons justify such absurdity?
Not British politicians. MPs from all the main parties have rejected the idea out of hand.
Manchester City and Chelsea have booked their places in the Champions League final
Not the scientists and public health experts. They say the prospect is a ‘ridiculous risk’.
And not the commentariat and keyboard warriors who are unusually united in their view that the very notion is ‘absurd’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’ (expletives deleted).
Even the fans of Manchester City and Chelsea, are sceptical about an outing to the Ataturk Stadium.
And no wonder.
Turkey has been plunged back into lockdown until at least May 17, after covid cases spiralled to 60,000-a-day last month and 12 times more are identified every day than in the UK.
A total of 25,000 tickets – around a third of the Ataturk Stadium’s (pictured) capacity – are expected to be made available, with 9,000 of these split between English fans of the two sides
After 14 months locked up in our own living rooms and just weeks before we finally reclaim our liberty and break free of the hated virus, are we really about to send tens of thousands of fans off to a hotbed of coronavirus for Europe’s largest lockdown party?
Because let’s be honest, it won’t just be the 12,000 lucky ticket holders who make the 2,000-mile journey to Istanbul.
English football tradition dictates that we are all on the jolly – with most of us on the beer. And in normal times, why not? But this does not make sense now.
Gateshead MP and the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters, Ian Mearns, summed it up this week.
Chelsea fans celebrate outside the ground after beating Real Madrid 2-0 in their semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge last night
Manchester City fans celebrate their team’s victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday night
The diehard Newcastle United supporter knows the temptation and the pressure City and Chelsea fans will feel to not only be at the game, but to be out there soaking up the atmosphere and the local brew.
However, with a heavy heart, Mearns urged them not to ‘jeopardise’ what we are about to achieve through 14 months of struggle and three lockdowns.
But we know they will. For many, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and ‘being there’ is not just about the match.
It is about friendships, family, a way of living. In short, it’s about identity. It’s not just a holiday or a city break. The DNA of a football fan makes it hard to say ‘no’.
The LED screen inside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium displays a message of ‘Good luck in Istanbul!’ ahead of the final
So, we know fans will go en masse and be exposed to the virus and we know that when they come home, not all of them will self-isolate. Not because they are football fans, just because people don’t.
Public health officials have spent endless hours tracking down the source of outbreaks in the last year and they find a common cause: People who don’t follow the rules, for whatever reason.
So, there is a real risk. But why take it? Move the game. Wembley is not an option, but Aston Villa have offered Villa Park and there are other possibilities. What about the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff? A neutral venue.
It’s true, we haven’t helped ourselves in this debate. English football is seen as arrogant on the European scene.
Turkey’s rate of coronavirus cases is around 12 times higher than Britain’s and double the European average as the country is still in the grip of its second wave, with over 30,000 cases announced on Tuesday
HOW DOES TURKEY’S COVID OUTBREAK COMPARE TO THE UK’S?
Covid statistics from Our World in Data, which collects figures from countries all over the world, suggest that Turkey’s outbreak is currently one of the worst in Europe.
The country is in the tail end of a second wave that peaked in late April when there were around 60,000 cases per day. At the same time in Britain the daily average was 2,500 per day.
Turkey is home to 82million, compared to 67million in the UK.
On Tuesday, Turkey recorded 31,219 more positive tests – a rate of 370 cases per million people.
The UK, on the same day, recorded 1,946 cases at a rate of less than 30 per million.
Over the course of the entire pandemic Turkey has recorded more cases than anywhere else in Europe, with 4.9million cases compared to 4.8m in Russia and 4.4m in the UK, although it was not the highest rate per person, with smaller nations faring worse on that front.
We harp on about the ‘home of football’ and we pipe up every time two English clubs make a final to demand the host nation is binned off, so we don’t have to leave these shores.
It’s not a good look and it does not leave other countries sympathetic to our cause. We’ve cried ‘wolf’ before.
But this is different. It’s about health and security and not just for us, for Turkey, too.
They have had it tough. Over the course of the entire pandemic Turkey has recorded more covid cases than anywhere else in Europe. Tragically, 350 people are still dying there from the virus every day. Is a booze-fuelled influx of Britons the right thing?
Contacts on the Bosphorus say even the Turks are divided on whether they should stage the game.
Which brings us back to the original question. Who is actually in favour?
The only obvious answer is Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan. He wants the game to go ahead to relaunch Turkey’s ailing tourist industry in the face of an economic downturn. The last season was wiped out by covid and he can see European neighbours preparing to reopen their bars and beaches.
It is completely understandable, but it is just too soon. Why not offer Turkey the opportunity to pass on this year and stage a game in better times?
It just so happens that UEFA has already allocated the next three Champions League finals and in 2024 it is scheduled for Wembley.
Could the Ataturk Stadium host that year, in front of a capacity 76,000 crowd? That would be a fitting showpiece for UEFA and properly showcase Turkey. Wembley could host the year after.
This year’s final is not going to make money, anyway. It just needs to be managed.
In this way no one loses out and everyone stays safe. Surely, there is more to gain from that than there is to lose right now?