Istanbul hopes to host Champions League final despite uncertainty

UEFA suspended Champions League matches until further notice in March as Europe’s football competitions were hit hard by coronavirus.

Istanbul's Ataturk Stadium hosted the 2005 Champions League final where Liverpool staged a remarkable comeback against AC Milan to lift the title.   -  AFP

Fifteen years after the “Miracle of Istanbul” that cemented Steven Gerrard’s status as a Liverpool legend, the Turkish metropolis was supposed to host its second Champions League final on Saturday. But that was before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked worldwide havoc.

UEFA suspended Champions League matches until further notice in March as Europe’s football competitions were hit hard by the virus.

The date and the venue of the final are now a source of uncertainty and alternative cities to Istanbul are being mentioned in media reports.

However, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and local fans still hope the final will be played in Istanbul in August as planned.

“It would of course be a source of pride to host a new final in Istanbul,” said Atakan Bodan, a member of the ultrAslan, Istanbul giants Galatasaray’s main fan group.

“(Istanbul) is a city of football, we are passionate,” said the football fan, who feels the suspension of the top football leagues has “robbed him of joy in his life“.

- Uncertainty-

All football fans remember the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul and Liverpool’s stunning comeback and penalty shoot-out victory over AC Milan after trailing 3-0 by half-time.

The final of the 2020 edition was set to be held on Saturday at the same venue, the Ataturk Olympic Stadium.

Whether it will be the case is no certain.

The New York Times reported Friday that the final would be moved from Turkey but that Istanbul could be chosen as host of a future final, when it is safe for fans to travel from abroad in large numbers.

READ: UEFA considers 'all options' for Champions League format

Spanish radio Cadena Cope cited Lisbon as a possible fallback, while Sky Italy spoke of Germany.

Asked by AFP, UEFA did not directly comment on the issue but said it was studying “all the options” for the format of the competition.

“No decision has been taken yet but there should be at the Executive Committee meeting on June 17,” a UEFA spokesman said.

The Turkish Football Federation was not immediately available for comment.

- ‘We are ready’ -

“Whatever the scenario -- final or mini-tournament -- we are ready,” said the TFF, highlighting Turkey’s infrastructure and record against the pandemic.

Ankara claims to have brought “under control” the fatal virus which, according to official figures, has caused about 4,500 deaths among some 162,000 confirmed cases in the country.

In terms of infrastructure, Istanbul, a major tourist destination, has a large hotel capacity.

ALSO READ: June 12 restart for Super Lig approved

And in addition to the Ataturk Stadium, the city can make available the home grounds of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas, which hosted the UEFA Super Cup clinched by Liverpool against Chelsea last August.

“I would not expect any problems in terms of the logistics ... The main concern for me is whether fans would be able to come,” noted Emre Sarigul, co-founder of the specialised website Turkish Football.

“It is difficult to talk with certainty about anything regarding football right now because of how quickly the health situation can deteriorate,” he said.

- Next time? -

In the meantime, the TFF, seeking to convey a “business as usual” message, announced that the Turkish league would restart on June 12, despite opposition from players and coaches.

For Turkey hosting the Champions League final is of economic and touristic importance which goes beyond sport.

While tourism -- an essential dynamo of economic growth in Turkey -- has been severely dented by the coronavirus crisis with the suspension of international flights, hosting such a prestigious sporting event would be a welcome boost.

ALSO READ: From ‘dust’ to glory, Liverpool’s ‘miracle’ of Istanbul

“Turkey has a PR problem in general so hosting major events successfully is pretty much always a boost for the country’s image and gives the opportunity to promote tourism in Istanbul and beyond,” said Sarigul.

Bodan, of ultrAslan, believes that if the health situation deteriorates again, “the competition will have to be cancelled“.

But in this case, “the 2021 final should be played in Istanbul”, he adds. “It is our right.”

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