These are exceptional times, and plans have to change quickly. Istanbul has held European finals before, very successfully. Liverpool’s incredible comeback in the 2005 final against AC Milan. That was in Istanbul. The stadium is great, even if the pitch is a little far away for my liking. And there is no doubt that a lot of money will have been spent already in preparation for this game. However, the UK government’s decision to place Turkey on its ‘red-list’ of travel destinations, and has actively discouraged fans of both Manchester City and Chelsea from travelling for the final. We all knew it was going to be a reduced capacity at the game itself, and UEFA has an incredibly annoying habit giving pitiful ticket allocations to teams that make the finals of their competitions, which would only reduce the fan presence even further.
The reasons for asking for the final to be moved to the UK, most likely Wembley, are quite selfish. The two teams playing the final happen to be English. If it was Paris Saint-Germain versus Real Madrid, would the same be asked? Possibly, given the situation that Turkey is currently in with COVID. But my cynical brain can’t help but wonder if Boris Johnson and his cabinet are not thinking that they will score points with fans of the two clubs by moving the final to the UK and letting them go without having to quarantine when they return. This, from a Prime Minister who doesn’t even like football. To me, this has the same motivation behind it as his instant leaping on the bandwagon to decry the failed Super League breakaway. Cynical vote grabbing. That’s all I see as a reason for this PM in particular to get involved.
But there are very good reasons for the UK to host the final or for it at least to be moved. As previously stated, the UK government has put Turkey on its ‘red-list’ concerning whether to travel there or not, and has discouraged fans from travelling. Quite apart from the fact that anyone who did travel would need to quarantine on their return, the risk of bringing back potential new variants of coronavirus could put the whole system and all the progress we have made at serious risk. So, it really doesn’t make any sense to continue with the idea of hosting the final of the biggest club competition in a city where the supporters of both finalists will not be able to attend. On the other hand, the UK has a track record of successfully hosting football matches with crowds. The Carabao Cup final and one of the FA Cup semi-finals were both held with small crowds in attendance. Step three of the government’s roadmap allows for fans to return to sporting events. Wembley is also a fantastic venue to hold such an event. It has held multiple Champions League finals in the last ten years. It’s one of the finest stadiums in the world. Wembley is actually scheduled to host the final in 2023. So, it would be feasible to swap the slots around and give Istanbul the slot for 2023 with compensation for the costs already accrued with the preparations for the match.
An alternative that is being explored by the relevant authorities is to host the game in Portugal. This would also make a lot of sense. After the COVID break, all matches from the quarter-finals onwards were hosted in Portugal, including the final. They can host COVID safe events like this (obviously there were no fans at the final last year). We can add the fact that Portugal is one of the 12 countries on the government’s ‘green-list’, meaning that fans can travel to Portugal and return without needing to quarantine. The final is scheduled for May 29th, so organising travel and tickets might be difficult. However, the cluttered nature of the football calendar this year, and the rapidly changing situation may rule Wembley out as well. The Championship Play-off final is scheduled to take place on the same day as the Champions League final, though it is being reported that the game will be moved as part of their offer to UEFA. But what may really sink the ship in terms of Wembley hosting the final this year is whether the government is willing to waive quarantine rules for the thousands of delegates and sponsors that would be entering the country at short notice.
Whether it’s hosted at Wembley or in Porto, I do think the Champions League final does need to be moved from Istanbul. In the current climate, it’s not a sensible move to keep the game there. These occasions are made by the fans. Having the final without at least some in the ground would be an awful shame.