Vulgar commercialism aside, the European Cup’s lustre is built on a monopoly
1 June ~ Liverpool v Milan in 2005 then 2007; Manchester United v Barcelona in 2009 and 2011; then, on Saturday, Real Madrid defeated Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final for the second time in three years. UEFA competition has become a boring fait accompli, yet I still love the European Cup final. A marathon of cynical commercial tat, including some of the preening participants, it remains the most genuinely heavyweight fixture in club football – and an unmissable date with the television.
Alicia Keys on piano, Andrea Bocelli in the stands and Jack White’s ubiquitous Seven Nation Army riff on the PA. Saturday’s pre-game show provided every kind of naff. It wasn’t as awful as Pepe’s play-acting or Cristiano Ronaldo ending another winning Champions League campaign with his unique brand of venal aesthetics. And Atlético’s second half was the most cultured entertainment on display. But the entire night truly embodied the European Cup final.
I constantly decry the monopolisation of the Champions League and laud the comparative intrigue of the Europa League. But Saturday was the 40th European Cup final I’ve been gripped by and sponsors monetise exactly this kind of moth-like emotional investment because it’s impervious to cynicism. There’s an iridescent romance about the Champions League, inherited from the European Cup and, more exactly, the final itself.
Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid, who equalised at the death in 2014, followed the eye-rhyming Rial (Héctor, 1956 and 1958) and Raúl (2000 and 2002) in scoring for the club in two finals. He was pulled to the ground while scoring from almost exactly the same spot from which Yannick Carrasco would equalise for Atlético with 11 minutes remaining as he too was dragged down by his shirt.
Carrasco instantly thought of someone else in his moment of glory, snogging his partner, a former Miss Belgium, at pitchside. But another final concluded with penalty drama which allowed Ronaldo to finish the night making love to himself. He wept ostentatiously as his Manchester United team-mates leaped for joy (in 2008, Moscow) and celebrated by flexing naked orange pecs as his penalty put the icing on a cake baked almost exclusively by Real Madrid team-mates (Lisbon 2014, Saturday).
Yet if Real had to win I wanted Ronaldo to become the first to score in more than two finals since Alfredo di Stéfano scored in the first five. “CR7” also likes a hat-trick and there hasn’t been one in this final since 1969. That was scored by an AC Milan player in the Bernabéu (Pierino Prati, in a 4-1 win defeat of Ajax), poetic considering Real have still to win at San Siro over 90 minutes but on Saturday moved ahead of Inter and AC Milan’s combined total of ten European Cups. It’s an innately historic occasion which creates a lust for more greatness.
I grew up in an era of 0-0 and 1-0 finals as the European Cup survived on memories of Real Madrid winning six of the first 11 – surely also a cartel. But from 1955 to 1962 Real lost one final 5-3 and won three others by 4-3, 3-2 and 7-3, respectively. Like every neutral in Europe, I always hope for a Hampden 1960 – Ferenc Puskas gets four, Di Stéfano three against Eintracht – or an Amsterdam 1962; Puskas scores a hat-trick before half time but Eusébio’s Benfica win it.
My generation had Milan’s scintillating destruction of Barcelona in 1994 and Liverpool’s epic 2005 Istanbul defeat of Milan on penalties, from 3-0 down at half-time. Barcelona have won it four times since, with displays verging on the balletic. Real’s securing of their tenth and 11th European Cups have contained everything, including Ronaldo glorifying his bit part.
Similarly vulgar commercialism may be ruining the world’s most prestigious competition. But a monopoly gave it that prestige. Real’s dominance of the first five Champion Clubs’ Cups created a legacy which Ajax and Bayern aspired to in the 1970s with three successive wins each. One-off triumphs can make players legends and permanently raise a club’s profile; sustained success – even domination – can be the making of competitions themselves.
In 1958, a 21-year-old Warren Beatty presented Real with the trophy after their defeat of Milan in Brussels. Incongruous celebrities are standard. Di Stéfano hounded out Brazilian midfield genius Didi – a two-time World Cup winner – when he arrived at the Bernabéu during that great era of the 1950s and 1960s. Divas always rule the Real dressing room.
Real v Stade de Reims was the very first European Cup final, 60 years ago, and then the fourth. Repeats are nothing new, and are inevitable when a continent tries to find its best team and greatest players. And that Europa League loses a bit of mystery when the same team wins it for the last three years. Alex Anderson