By Peter Hall and William Schomberg
BAKU (Reuters) – Many Arsenal and Chelsea fans have been put off making the long and expensive trip to Azerbaijan to follow their teams in the Europa League final, but one father and his son have just completed an adventurous seven-day voyage to make it to Baku.
Jake Ralph and his father Kevin Cobb flew from London to Istanbul last Tuesday before starting a nearly 1,400-mile journey overland, through Turkey and walking over the border into Georgia before reaching the shores of the Caspian Sea in the Azerbaijan capital on Monday.
“We wanted to make an adventure of it, and see places we would never go otherwise. The plan was to save money and have a bit of an adventure,” Ralph, 28, said.
The duo wanted to do the entire trip, including their accommodation and match tickets, for the same 979 pound ($1,240) price tag just for the flights offered in an official club deal for Chelsea fans.
Europe’s football governing body UEFA has been heavily criticised for choosing Baku to host Wednesday’s final.
The cost of the roughly 5,000-mile round-trip has deterred many supporters, with both Arsenal and Chelsea failing to sell even close to their 6,000 ticket allocation.
“There are lots of Chelsea fans who go to just as many games as I do and cannot come out here, which is really sad,” Ralph said.
The story of Ralph and his father caught the attention of Azerbaijani tourism officials who sent a delegation to meet them at Baku station with dancers and offers of food hampers.
“We now have a driver who comes and picks us up and takes us places. We have been upgraded to VIP and we are having a stadium tour, and asked for our shirt sizes. It has been a bit of a whirlwind really,” Ralph said.
Jake’s father Kevin, who has attended more than 2,000 Chelsea games and has followed the Blues in Europe for decades, said there was more to following a team abroad than simply watching the football.
“All along the way, we have been met by people with less money but who wanted to help us, time after time,” Cobb said. “Traveling is so humbling.”
After their week-long journey to Baku, they plan to travel home by plane on Thursday, taking three separate flights to get back to London.
Some fans have journeyed from far beyond Europe to get to the match. Chinese fans wearing Arsenal shirts strolled through central Baku on Tuesday.
Ashraf Ahmed, 34, an Arsenal-supporting American Bangladeshi, made the 32-hour trip from Austin, Texas, to see the Gunners play in a competitive match for the first time.
He jumped online to apply for a ticket for the final as soon as Arsenal dramatically fought back to defeat Rennes of France for a 4-3 aggregate win in March and advance to the quarter-finals.
“When we turned it around, I said to myself I have to go,” Ahmed said.
Just his airline ticket from Houston to Baku cost $1,500 and included a 12-hour layover in Qatar.
But Ahmed, who was expecting to meet up with other U.S.-based Arsenal fans in Baku, said he had no regrets.
“I wanted to make it special when I saw Arsenal in a competitive game for the first time, not some random match,” he said. “This is fantastic.”
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Hugh Lawson)