The decision to schedule Arsenal’s Europa League last-32 meeting against BATE Borisov at the Emirates Stadium for a 5pm kick-off shows UEFA has “scant regard” for fans, according to a leading supporters’ group.
The Gunners will play the second leg of their tie against the Belarusian champions on Wednesday, February 20, 2019, with governing body UEFA confirming the game will also start earlier than usual.
Both Arsenal and London rivals Chelsea topped their respective groups and will therefore play their second legs at home – with UEFA rules stipulating the pair cannot play in the city on the same night.
Arsenal will be the team whose fixture is brought forward with UEFA confirming that, as FA Cup winners, Chelsea are given priority.
“Due to the city clash between Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC, and in order to respect the sporting criteria of the competition (both teams are seeded and have to play the return leg of their respective round of 32 ties at home), one of the two return-leg matches will be played on a Wednesday,” a UEFA statement read.
“In accordance with the principles set by the Club Competitions Committee, Chelsea FC have priority, having won the national domestic cup. Arsenal FC with therefore play their return leg in the round of 32 at home on Wednesday 20 February 2019, at 18.00 CET (17.00 GMT), irrespective of their opponents.”
The game will kick-off early so as not to clash with two Champions League last-16 fixtures played on the same day.
But Lois Langton, chair of the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association, believes the decision shows a disregard for fans planning to attend the game against BATE.
“The announcement that the home leg of Arsenal’s round of 32 tie will see a 5pm kick-off shows the scant regard UEFA holds for match-attending supporters and will undoubtedly impact on the attendance figures,” she told Press Association Sport.
“Cocooned in its UEFA bubble, the indifference to supporters’ interests is regrettably nothing new and UEFA’s decisions to alter competition kick-off times appear to go unchecked and with no supporter input.
“A significant number of supporters will have work commitments and will simply be unable to leave the office in time to reach the Emirates for 5pm. The result will inevitably be a reduced attendance which will diminish the advantage of playing at home.
“Chelsea and Arsenal have both played matches on the same date and at the same time in the past in various competitions. It can only be hoped that UEFA will review their decision but sadly that is probably too much to wish for.”
Another fans’ group – the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust – issued a statement via Twitter in which they also condemned the kick-off time.
“This is just ridiculous. Football and TV seem to have no limits when it comes to disrespecting fans. AST will be calling on both UEFA and Arsenal to work to prevent this,” their tweets read.
“The proposed kick off time of 5pm for the Europa League game at the Emirates v Bate is ridiculous. The AST is calling on Arsenal to make the strongest representations to UEFA to have this changed. Don’t they understand football without fans is nothing.
“And if the game does go ahead at this time then Arsenal should offer every fan a full refund for a game that is included on the season ticket. It is not fair to force fans to pay for a game that is scheduled at a time that it is impossible for so many to make.”
Although kick-off times were two hours apart, both Arsenal and Chelsea last played at home on the same day as recently as December 2.
Both clubs hosted their nearest neighbours in Premier League derbies as Chelsea beat Fulham 2-0 in a game that kicked off at midday, with Arsenal then winning 4-2 against Tottenham in a 2.05pm kick-off at the Emirates Stadium later that day.
UEFA has been contacted for comment.