Two European finals, four English teams.
To arrive at this point, four gripping semi-finals offering the highest level of the game – goals, excitement, edge-of-the-seat nerve-wracking moments, and even a penalty shootout. Extraordinary spectacles including a manager unashamedly in tears, on his knees on the pitch.
There followed lengthy debate in the media about the ethics of two London teams flying to Baku to play a final; the unfairness of their ticket allocation, and inevitably politics. Politics about a final being held in a country that had zero diplomatic relations with its neighbour, thus resulting in one player remaining in London. All this was before fans tried to work out how to get to Baku, and at what price.
Meanwhile similar discussions were held about Madrid. True, the Spanish capital had no political agenda, but why was the total ticket allocation for both teams only 50% of the capacity of the stadium? This, of course, resulted in at least as many fans arriving without tickets as those who had them. To aggravate matters, for reasons known only to the Madrid authorities (police or football is unclear), there were no screenings of the game in public spaces.
The airlines made hay. Prices of flights from England to Madrid were reported to have risen by almost 700%, and airb’n’b bookings were cancelled as soon as the teams in the final were known. Rebookings were ten times the original quotes. The cost of all this to the environment is unknown. In terms of travel alone, one fan is reported to have flown to Dublin, thence to Romania, and then to Spain in order to minimise the flight prices.
So the nights of the finals arrived. Europa first, and the team with most to play for started brightly. It only lasted until half time, following which they capitulated miserably. Their opponents did not play brilliant football – as one commentator remarked, it looked like a pre-season friendly. There was no atmosphere in the stadium (not surprising as a mere 3000 fans in total made it to Baku) and this was not helped by a large running track surrounding the pitch. Disappointment for the losers and a piece of silverware for the winners that was largely irrelevant to them. Anticlimax number one.
Surely the Champions League final would live up to expectation. Two fiercely competitive teams with equally passionate managers. Two teams that had, in different ways, gone through baptisms of fire to reach Madrid. A massive build up to the game, tens of thousands of exuberant fans in the city. Virtually every English newspaper had pull-out supplements about the game.
The whistle blew and within a minute everyone was stunned. A penalty given for a handball, agreed by the VAR. France’s greatest keeper, and captain of his club and national sides had no chance. How much did that early goal contribute what followed? Impossible to tell – certainly there was no evidence of deflation, defeat, or lack of motivation. But it was a very curious game, without the drive and momentum associated with both teams. The commentators remarked on it repeatedly – exhaustion, flat, three weeks without a competitive game, wisdom of starting a player, no matter how good, who hadn’t played for many weeks.
In the end I hoped that if Liverpool were going to win then it wouldn’t be by that single strange penalty. They didn’t. A clean strike, a good goal from their substitute just before the end was decisive.
Cue wild celebration from the sea of red, and the sadness, devastation, at what could have been from the receding waves of white. There will be pages of analysis. I am left, along with many football fans I suspect, with a massive feeling of anticlimax.
Four of England’s great football teams, all in different phases of their fortunes to be sure, but all capable of playing thrilling, technically superb football.
None of them made the grade this week.