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UEFA Champions League Final 2011

It may be a coincidence, and it may be karma, or it may be nothing at all except a combination of circumstances that arose for no reason at all, but I personally have been very lucky recently. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the UEFA Champions League this year.

My first game during this two-week trip to the UK was at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home field, on May 22 for the last game of this year’s Premier League season. This banner in honor of Ryan Giggs hangs at the Stretford End of the stadium. He has been playing for the ManUtd first team for 20 years!

The UEFA Champions League is the annual competition among the best professional soccer clubs in Europe. These clubs select themselves for the tournament each year by winning the national cup in their respective countries the previous year, or by placing high enough in their respective national leagues the previous year to qualify. In England, the top four clubs in the Premier League qualify, as do the top four clubs in Spain and Italy and the top three in Germany and France. If I remember correctly, every European country has one team or more playing in the Champions League every year.

The Premier League trophy was presented to the team after the game, a carefully staged affair where only the professional photographers, jostling each other in a temporary wooden enclosure, got a good view. After the presentation, players and the coach strolled around the field in a kind of informal lap of honor. This is Sir Alex Ferguson, who has coached ManUtd since 1986 (yep, that’s almost 25 years!), with a group of young people. My guess is that they are his grandchildren. A cute, human moment that you won’t see on TV.

My team, Manchester United, qualified for this year’s Champions League (2010-11), as did Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, the uniquely named club abbreviated as “Spurs” which my dad supported all his life. I already blogged here about ManUnited’s match against Valencia at Old Trafford in the Champion’s League in December. That was the first precursor of the luck to follow: the match was played on my birthday, and David (an old schoolfriend) and I had a great time watching it. Okay, the score was a 1-1 draw, which was less than ideal, but it was my first visit to Old Trafford, the Theater of Dreams where the club plays at home, and it all felt pretty special.

ManUnited duly advanced in the tournament, as did Chelsea and Arsenal, and thanks to Tom in Paris (more about that in a later post) I discovered in February that the final of this year’s Champions League was to be held in May in London at the new Wembley Stadium. I immediately checked the availability for tickets for that match on line.

It is very hard to capture soccer action from the stands. The only time that you can really do it is during a set piece, like this free kick. If I remember correctly, this Blackpool free kick scored. The ball in the photo is to our right of the head of number 15, Nemanja Vidic., ManUtd’s Serbian captain. Poor Blackpool were relegated from the Premier League after this loss at Old Trafford: all rather sad.

This game is the European equivalent of a Superbowl, and so tickets are always very much in demand. The teams who make it to the final each get a substantial allocation, 25,000 for each team this year, which they themselves allocate typically among their season ticket holders, the people who have paid for seats at every national league game of the season. UEFA, the body that administers soccer in Europe, also allocated itself 25,000 tickets this year. Only 12,000 tickets were available to the general public, to people EUFA called on their site “neutral football fans.” (For those of you who don’t know soccer, that is ridiculous statement: if you’re a fan, you’re absolutely not neutral!)

EUFA decided to sell those 12,000 tickets to people who won a lottery for them. As each fan who won the lottery could buy two tickets, that meant about 6,000 winners. I don’t know how many applicants those winners were drawn from, but quite a few. Registration for the lottery took place between February 24 and March 18. On the last day for registration, there were still 8-12 teams in the tournament (the round of 16 was not yet complete, but some of the teams that would advance were already known), and so no-one entering the lottery had much hope of seeing his or her team in the Final. Maybe that reduced the number of entries.

After the game, 68,000 supporters pile out of the stadium and make their way home. This was taken on the road to the tram line. There were stalls and tents set up to sell T-shirts and souvenirs. We waited about half an hour at the station for the tram. There were six days to go until the Champions League Final in London.

I gave it a shot. In a way, I didn’t care who played: it would be a great event whoever was there. Yes, of course, I’d prefer to see Man United and Barcelona, my team against the best team in the world, but that was a long way away, both time wise and in the realm of possibilities. Besides, what chance did I have of winning the lottery?!

I concentrated on work. There were other reasons for wanting to fly to Europe in May, but none of them would be convincing if I didn’t have a good first quarter of 2011. Fortunately (see: there’s that luck again!), I had a great first quarter.

On April 5th, an email arrived from Ticketmaster. I figured it was junk, another list of pending classic rock concerts, but no: “Dear Ian Stock, We are pleased to inform you that as a result of the lottery process, your application with the customer reference number: 508094 for the UEFA Champions League Final 2011 has been successful.” Good grief: I had actually won! I never ever win things, and certainly not lotteries. Can’t say that any more, now can I?

The Guardian’s Sports page on May 28, the day of the Final. It voices what we all hoped to see in a match that I only dreamed about when I signed up for the lottery. If you live under a rock or otherwise avoid soccer in your life (may I take this opportunity to express my profound sympathy!), the two players are: in the Barcelona shirt on the left, the current FIFA world player of the year, Lionel Messi, and in the ManUtd shirt, Wayne Rooney, whose overhead kick in the local derby against Manchester City was rated the best goal of the Premier League’s entire season.

By this time, the semi-finals were set up, and Manchester United and Barcelona were both still in the tournament. ManUnited faced Schalke, the upstart German club who had wiped out Inter Milan in the quarter finals but who were new at this and likely feeling the pressure. Barcelona was playing their old favorites in Spain, Real Madrid. It was Jose Morinho, now managing Real Madrid, who had engineered Barcelona’s defeat last year at the hands of Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final, but I didn’t fancy his chances of accomplishing the same feat twice. In short, my dream match, every soccer lover’s dream match of this year, was getting closer.

My first instinct for the second ticket was to sell it. If an English club was in the Final, it would be worth a small fortune, probably enough to cover the entire cost of the trip. But it wasn’t the money that worried me. I have five sons (that’s where my luck has held through the years, by the way, in my children), all of whom are pretty fond of soccer.

I met Charlie at the airport, London’s Heathrow, at lunchtime on the day of the game. UEFA representatives were there to greet people from Ford, Heineken and other Champions League sponsors. One of these representatives was kind enough to set us up in front of their placard for this picture. Note the ManUtd crest on my polo.

How was I to choose who to offer the ticket to? I started with Alex, the youngest and a Manchester United fan. Logically, he should have jumped at the chance, but lately he tends to say no to a lot of things, in particular to anything new and different. The added complication was that the Final was taking place before the end of the school year, meaning that we couldn’t turn the trip into a vacation. Final exams were happening the next week, and so he would need to fly out on the Friday before the game and back on the Sunday after the game. Sure enough, his first reaction was that he didn’t want to spend 24 hours flying to see a soccer game lasting two hours, and he turned it down.

I tried Charlie, the next oldest, fully expecting him too to turn it down. Charlie is a serious Arsenal fan, and year in year out Arsenal are serious ManUnited rivals. But no, he barely paused before accepting the invitation. When I pointed out that the chances were then good that ManUnited would be in the Final, he just shrugged: “it’s the chance of a lifetime.” Hey, that’s right: I’m a fair bit farther along in my life than Charlie, and this was to be my first ever UEFA Champions League Final. Charlie figured it out.

Here’s another one of Charlie at the airport. Turkish Airlines impressed because they managed to pick both finalists to sponsor, even though they were not sponsors of the Champions League as a whole. Not bad judgment, that!

I didn’t have any final exams this year, and so booked a two week vacation around the Final and flew to Heathrow on May 18th. Work again cooperated, with a public offering to help with at the beginning of May, completed before I was due to leave. And a friend at NextSpace, an Englishman who is an Aston Villa fan, told me that his dad, Paddy Campbell, of Glossop, Derbyshire, a ManUnited season ticket holder for donkey’s years, could probably find me a ticket for ManUnited’s last Premier League game of the season on Sunday May 22. They had already won the league, and so there was nothing at stake, but the trophy would be presented at the end of the game and this sounded like a great warm up to the Final the next weekend. I delightedly got in touch with Paddy, and crossed my fingers.

This one’s a bit dark: the flash was playing up during this trip. It shows Charlie in front of Zinedine Zidane, hero of the French World Cup campaign in 1998, in the UEFA space in Hyde Park devoted to the history of the Champions League. Zidane was caught by the photographer as he shot the volley with his left foot (he is right-footed) that won Real Madrid the final in 2002. It was a beautiful goal, and Charlie’s always been a big fan of Zidane’s.

You guessed it: Paddy not only found me a ticket, the season ticket of a holder who could not make the game, he found it for free. I owe you, Paddy!

Duly interrupting my week in the Highlands of Scotland, I watched a very entertaining game at Old Trafford. The supporters were in fine voice in the tram on the way to Old Trafford, and in finer voice in the stands. I learned new songs, most of which are pretty much unprintable and involve Liverpool (a traditional local rival) or Manchester City (another) or both. ManUnited were down 2-1 against Blackpool at one point, but came back with some lovely fluid moves to win 4-2. “Campeones, Campeones,” sang the crowd in Spanish, “Olé Olé Olé!”

The first thing I noticed on the tube with Charlie on our way to the Final was that the ManUnited fans were no longer singing that song in Spanish. At Old Trafford, they rarely stopped. It made sense in a way, singing that song non-stop on the day that the Premier League trophy was presented to Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s manager and coach. But I felt that its absence on the tube to Wembley was a bit of a sign, an unspoken expression of self-doubt.

We’re getting closer! Walking from the tube at Wembley Park station, we arrived at the new Wembley Stadium, built after the old was knocked down in 2002 (about). We’re starting to feel it!

They were still pretty loud on the tube. It was the first time that Charlie had heard English football fans on their way to a match, and I could see the surprise on his face as they roared their chants and songs up and down the carriage and then on the platform. Barcelona fans and passers by alike looked uneasy.

We had taken the tube from Heathrow, where I had met his arriving flight, direct to Hyde Park, where EUFA had been putting on a show all week. We saw the Champions League Cup, an impressive hunk of silver, and a sort of museum of past Champions League highlights. Then lunch in a pub at Marble Arch, a walk along Oxford Street and on to the tube at Bond Street for Wembley Park. It started raining as we arrived at the stadium, and we elected to find our seats under cover straight away. We bought programmes and watched and waited.

There was a show before the game. Much of it probably worked better in TV than from the stands, but this was a fine moment. The crests of each finalist straddle the UEFA crest (of course bigger: bureaucrats often suffer delusions of grandeur!) The red-shirted guardsmen at the bottom of the photo have taken time off from guarding the Queen to escort the Cup to the stadium.

After the match, Sir Alex commented that he had never played against a better team, and he must have known that (as I did, as most soccer fans did) in advance. More power to him, then, for not trying to play defensively, which would have been an alternative approach to take, Mourinho’s approach with Inter Milan the year before. No, his team played the same fluid attacking soccer that is his and their trademark.

It made for a great game, because Barcelona seem incapable of playing any other way: both teams ran themselves ragged attacking.  It was beautiful, fluid play almost the entire match.

Half time found the teams even at 1-1, and the ManUnited goal, courtesy of a Rooney-Giggs one-two and a perfect shot from Rooney, had woken up the ManUnited fans, who had generally been quieter than the Barcelona fans. They weren’t the only ones woken up, incidentally. I happened to glance across at Charlie as I leapt up howling after Rooney’s goal, pounding the air with both fists, and there he was, my Arsenal fan and heir, howling away and pounding the air with both fists just like his dad!! Good times!

Here’s the Barcelona end of the Stadium, where most of their 25,000 fans were cheering their team on. They were loud and colorful and a sea of movement, especially in the second half as their team took control of the match. They watch these players every week, and must know by now what they’ve got.

We came back to earth in the second half, as Barcelona ramped it up, demonstrating why people are starting to talk about them as the best team ever. Literally. Charlie and I had seen them before, with Alex and Marie-Hélène at Candlestick Park during the summer of 2009. They were playing an exhibition game against Chivas de Guadalajara, the Mexican professional team. It had been like watching the Harlem Globetrotters, only playing soccer. Chivas scored first, and Barca only managed a 1-1 draw that day, but the scoreline gives you no sense of their total superiority on that field of play. Barcelona were running rings around Chivas, and making it look easy.

Here is the ManUtd contingent, holders of the 25,000 tickets allocated to their club, at the other end of the stadium. The words read “Spirit of 68,” a commemoration of the first time that ManUtd won the Champions League (then called the European Cup) in 1968, at the old Wembley Stadium against Benfica. That match featured Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best, the holy trinity of my youth, for the winners.

They were not that much better than ManUnited, but a memory of the Final illustrates how that second half went. Soon after the kickoff, three or four Barcelona players, who had possession on Charlie’s and my side of the midfield, were surrounded by a superior number of ManUnited players running in hard and seeking to dispossess them. They did it just right, according to the book, hard and fair tackles, and by rights should have come away with the ball.

But no, the Barcelona players flicked the ball back and forth among them, as they love to do and do incredibly quickly, with the ManUnited players hot on their heels again and again, and then one of the Barca players flicked it out of the danger zone to another player unmarked in the middle of the field. The Barcelona fans again cried, “olé!”

Here we are in our seats, Block 550. This was taken by a ManUtd supporter from Lincolnshire.

David, my friend and a ManUnited fan from Marlow, watched the match on TV and commented that Barca always seemed to have 8-10 men in midfield! Very dispiriting for United, doing it right, doing what they were supposed to do, time and again, almost to no avail.

There is an inordinate amount of press comment on the Final, just as there is on a Superbowl, much of it accurate, and I won’t repeat it here. It was obviously disappointing to lose 3-1, the second time that we have lost to them in this season final in three years. But as Charlie and I made our way in the crowd toward the train back to the hotel, I heard myself saying again and again, “they’re just so good.” And the Barcelona players are.

The flash messed up again, but here we are with Barcelona ready to kick-off for the second half. We had an awesome view of everything, as it happened,  all the movement off the ball from both teams, the speed of the match, the moments when we were simply in awe. In a good match, that may happen a few times. In this match, it happened again and again. And there we were, right there in the thick of things!

It is not a coincidence that the three nominees this year for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, the annual award for the best footballer in the world, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, all play for Barcelona, the first time that has ever happened. That match was the best football I’ve ever seen live, and I’ve seen a fair bit over the years. ManUnited were not embarrassed, but they were well beaten. “Campeones, Campeones, Olé Olé Olé!”

It was a beautiful game, and Charlie and I were very lucky to have been able to watch it live and in person, at the new Wembley Stadium in London.