Meet the Arsenal Fans Who Actually Travelled to Belarus

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2017

Arsenal players celebrate after scoring their third goal during the Europa League group H soccer match between Bate and Arsenal at the Borisov-Arena stadium in Borisov, Belarus, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Sergei Grits/Associated Press

One of the advantages of Arsenal's participation in the UEFA Europa League is the opportunity to travel to some unfamiliar cities and grounds.

On Thursday night, a loyal core of supporters made the journey to Barysaw in Belarus to see the Gunners face BATE Borisov. Arsenal were allocated just 794 tickets for the Borisov Arena, so only a few fanatical fans were in attendance at the game.

Bleacher Report spoke to four travelling fans about what inspired them to embark on the journey and their experiences of following Arsenal over land and sea.

           

Tim Stillman: Arsenal writer and podcaster

Twitter: @stillberto 

On travelling to Barysaw

I go to most European away matches, but I was particularly attracted to this one because of its relative obscurity. I've never been to Belarus before, and with all due respect, I can't imagine I would go there for any other reason than to watch football. That's one of the great things about European away games, experiencing places you might not otherwise venture to.

                  

On the Europa League

I'm perfectly fine with it. I think the Champions League has long been a stale, predictable competition in desperate need of a shakeup. The Europa League is something different and, for a travelling support, gives us the opportunity to go to some different places—like Minsk and Cologne.

It's a first-world problem, but I'm getting a bit bored of Munich and Barcelona, great cities though they are. That said, I am hoping the Europa League is a one-season novelty.

                 

On the state of Arsenal

I view the current situation slightly pessimistically, to be honest, and I think Arsenal might be in for a few years of what Liverpool had immediately post-Hicks and Gillett and United in the post-Ferguson era. But it hasn't diluted my appetite to attend. That desire is not really connected to the form of the team, to be honest, it comes from a different place. The trips are always great fun, regardless of the result in any case.


On the best thing about following Arsenal in Europe

Being a tourist! To be honest, I tend to forget there is a match going on at all until the afternoon of the game. I like to take in the local sights. It's a great way of seeing a bit of Europe. But with some of the more obscure trips, there are more overseas fans than English, which always makes these games a great novelty.

In Minsk, I am certain there will be more eastern European Gooners than London-based. It's always amusing when the chanting has a Baltic tint to it.

                

Tim Payton: Arsenal Supporters' Trust

Twitter: @TimPayton

On travelling to Barysaw

It's the opportunity to visit a new country and city and experience a different culture. Borisov may not be glamorous, but it's a breath of fresh air from repeated visits to Bayern.  

If it wasn't for Arsenal, I very much doubt I'd ever go to Belarus, and that's a good thing.

                  

On the Europa League

In football terms, the Europa League is clearly a big step down. But in terms of enjoying meeting different fans and taking in new experiences, it is a breath of fresh air. We've already seen that with the Cologne fans and now the chance to visit a city like Minsk.

On the state of Arsenal

Arsenal aren't in a good place right now. It's a spiral I've been highlighting for a while and all goes back to poor governance at the board level, which has allowed the football-management side of things to become siloed and drift.

As much fun as the Europa League might be, it really is vital the club make it back to the Champions League this season. Another season in the second tier of European football with the top players at the end of their contracts and new commercial deals to do would really be tough to manage.

                    

On the best thing about following Arsenal in Europe

The best thing is meeting with fans from other clubs and experiencing a different football culture. It's also good to meet those Arsenal fans who live in different places and are often getting their only chance to support the team. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

                     

Andro Atoev: Arsenal fan originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, now based in Krakow, Poland

Twitter: @MacAndrews

Photo courtesy of Andro Atoev

On travelling to Barysaw

I am from Georgia, but for the past four years, I've been living in Poland. I am not an EU citizen, so that means I need to go through the hassle with a UK visa to fly to the Emirates Stadium or other Premier League games.

I always look out for European away nights and have only been to the Emirates once. I once went to Istanbul on a 27-hour solo bus trip when I was a poor student, and I have been to Porto and Milan. So the fact we got Poland's next-door neighbour in the draw made it an easy decision for me to go.   

Arsenal are big in Belarus, partly thanks to Alexander Hleb, who represented both Arsenal and BATE. A few years ago, Minsk hosted the 10th anniversary of Arsenal Russian Speaking Supporters Club, and that was the first time I went to Belarus.

Before that, I knew some of them online and only met them there in person. I think there will be lots of local Arsenal fans in the away section but also in the home section bordering it. 

                  

On the Europa League

I'm a Red Member, so my opportunity to get those rare tickets is really low, and when we got Bayern and Barcelona year after year, I would always miss out on tickets, because they were always in demand due to the high calibre of the game and the easy connection to London. Given the results, you could say I didn't really miss anything.

When it became clear we would compete in Europa League, I was hoping for a silver lining. I was excited for the draw because the chances for a central or eastern European team were higher. Of course, though, I would much prefer Arsenal competed in Champions League every season. 

                   

On the state of Arsenal

The general state of the club is not great.

We've got players running down their contracts who don't believe we can compete or who need a change of scenery. I foresee more players being added to that list.

Unless we turn things around on the field dramatically and start competing, I don't see how the fans' mood will be better by the end of this season in comparison to the previous one, when we won a cup.

We have the squad to compete, but whether boss Arsene Wenger keeps their focus and motivation on the right level is the biggest question. Given that the competition for the "real trophies" is getting tougher, I don't see fans ever being content. I predict that by March or April the atmosphere will be toxic again and will have an effect on the performances.

Having said that, I've been an Arsenal fan for almost 20 years now—win, draw or lose—and recent issues have not tempered my appetite one bit. Same interest, same passion.  

Photo courtesy of Andro Atoev


On the best thing about following Arsenal in Europe

The away support is great. Again, I've only been to the Emirates once, but all the times I've been at away games were great.

The pre-match buildup, interaction with locals, some mild tension, local police in their uniforms and local methods of controlling the crowd, interesting grounds, the travelling experience itself, food, drinks etc. It's fantastic.  

Haroun Hickman: Arsenal fan who lost a bet and had to go to Belarus

Twitter: @HarounHickman

On travelling to Barysaw

Ridiculously, I'm going because of a bet with an old friend who's a Manchester United fan. Towards the end of last season, we agreed that if either our teams failed to qualify for the Champions League, the other person could pick an away game for the loser to attend. If anything reminds me why I don't gamble, this is it.

                        

On the Europa League

I'm actually excited about it, if only for the fact that we're not playing Olympiakos or Bayern Munich (yet). I think the attraction of the Champions League is knowing you've entered into the same competition as the best clubs in Europe, but the reality is we haven't competed at the elite level or ventured into the latter stages for many years. 

I was in Milan in 2008 when we beat the holders 2-0 with an immensely talented, albeit (predictably) mentally fragile, team, and results like that made the competition special even without winning it. However, the last result that really came close to that was the 2-1 win over Barcelona six years ago (honourable mention for beating Bayern in the group stage in 2015).

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that repetitive abject humiliation has dampened any feeling of excitement towards the Champions League—when the defeats are so heavy and the prize seems more distant than ever, you can't help but feel detached from the prestige of it, which is obviously a shame.

I don't think we're in any position to scoff at a European trophy, and I hope that many fans who are dismissive towards the Europa League will increasingly become invested in our attempts to win it if we can go deep into the knockout stages. 

The goal should ultimately be a return to the Champions League and a more pragmatic approach to our knockout football if we do. But this is where we are now, and we don't have any option but to give the competition a concerted effort because nothing is gained by drifting through and getting knocked out in March with a weakened team.

                          

On the state of Arsenal

There's toxicity at every level of the club, so it's genuinely difficult to articulate just how much work is required to get to a stage where promises of competing with Europe's elite can actually be realised. 

The obvious and well-documented issues are around the futures of key players, the manager's decline, lethargy in the transfer market and the incompetence/apathy of the board and owner.

But we're being surpassed in areas such as commercial strategy, too, and it's all indicative of a club that is attempting to exercise the pre-Roman Abramovich blueprint of sustainability, which is crushingly infuriating and simply not compatible with the new order of club management at the top of the game. 

I feel the manager's eventual departure will lead to necessary structural changes (e.g. bringing in a director of football), but my faith in the board's execution of post-Wenger organisation, coupled with the exponential progress of our rivals, leaves me very sceptical about our ability to be anything more than a domestic cup challenger for the next three to five years. 

Ultimately, the only true "catalyst for change" is a change in ownership, which is sadly nothing more than a hopeless wish. 

Annoyingly, I'm blinded by my idiotic fandom and love for this club, so my appetite for away trips is the same as ever, particularly for Europe, where the general away experience is more rounded than a typical domestic one, which is essentially just a coach/train journey to the game and back.

              

On the best thing about following Arsenal in Europe

As briefly highlighted above, it's the satellite activities to the match itself—discovering a new city, meeting local fans, visiting the best local restaurants—that enrich the experience.

Obviously, the match is the reason for the trip, but by the time it comes around, the nerves aren't the same because you realise it's only one element of the overall trip.

In contrast, when you take a coach to Wolverhampton on a freezing November evening solely to watch a game of football, you dread to think about the pain of doing the return journey if it's following a miserable defeat.

                    

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and follows the club from a London base.