UEFA Champions League Final

LEAD Champions League 169510169

 

For fans, from fans.

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Wembley is more than just a football stadium. It has hosted the Summer Olympics and a FIFA World Cup final. It has been the headline gig for rockstars from the Rolling Stones to Coldplay. It has seen sporting moments as varied as the butterfly-to-bee routine of Muhammad Ali and the dog-gone conclusion that is greyhound racing. It has also seen its share of memorable goals: Ferenc Puskas’s left-footed drag-back strike for Hungary’s Magical Magyars in their historic 6-3 thrashing of England in 1953. It has seen its share of controversial goals: Notably Geoff Hurst’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it effort in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany.

 

And Wembley hasn’t just seen football, it has also seen football of the American kind... the sporting church has hosted NFL too.

 

Like Wembley, the UEFA Champions League (CL) final is more than a football match. This is the stage where Alfredo di Stefano, in the angelic meringue whites of Real Madrid, built the mystique of the team, the players and the very tournament itself — the old European Cup, as it was known, was restricted only to the champions of Europe’s leagues and wasn’t the money-driven league of the rich and powerful it has become over the past two decades. This is where dynasties were born. Think Johan Cruyff’s Ajax. Or the team that followed them as triple champions, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich. Dream teams were assembled for this tournament — the Milan squad of the late 1980s with its influx of Dutch flair or Real Madrid with its Galacticos. The League is also where a host of academy products saw years of hard work bear fruit: Manchester United’s golden generation of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the like achieving its finest hour at the Camp Nou in 1999, or Barcelona’s generation of La Masia-bred Tiki-Taka masters who’ve won thrice since 2006. Inevitably, the twain shall meet… again. For the sixth time in its history, Wembley will host the biggest match in club football.

 

Empire state of mind

Located in North-West London, Wembley Stadium is considered one of football’s holiest temples. A view espoused by none other than football’s greatest player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (or, as we simply call him, Pele). The Brazilian even chose the stadium over his native Maracanã (the same with the jaw-dropping figure of 199,854 fans crammed into the Rio de Janeiro stadium for the 1950 World Cup final) as the sport’s holiest venue. “Wembley is the cathedral of football. It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football,” Pele had once said.

 

Ironic, then, that football wasn’t really the prime focus when it was built. Inaugurated in 1923, the main purpose of the stadium was to host the British Empire Exhibition—a colonial showcase of the empire’s vastness back in the days when the sun would never set on it. As much a symbol of the empire as the cups of tea it was built on. The venue was even called the Empire Stadium, and there were plans afoot to demolish the stadium after the exhibition. The official stated purpose of the exhibition was “to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind Mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other.” It’s a good thing football happened!

 

Old & new

The Wembley of today, of course, looks nothing like the old Wembley. Since a £757 million renovation between 2000 and 2007, the stadium has been transformed from a structure that typified classical architecture with its iconic all-white Twin Towers to one that oozes modern technology, symbolised in the striking 133-m arch that sits over the north stand. While the transformation may be aesthetically pleasing, it has got the more superstitious English football fans talking hexes. Remember this is a country where one former head coach, Glenn Hoddle, based most of his decisions on the word of a mysterious, gypsy faith-healer.

 

What the hex

Wembley has witnessed Brit football’s greatest moments. The national team under Sir Alf Ramsey’s watchful guidance won its only major piece of silverware at the 1966 World Cup. Manchester United won their first European Cup here in 1968 against Benfica Lisbon with George Best leaving his indelible mark with a goal of characteristic trickery. Liverpool won here in 1978 with Kenny Dalglish scoring against Clube Brugge. Since the renovation, however, things haven’t been so hunky-dory. In 2011, Manchester United was beaten in the final against FC Barcelona as the new Wembley hosted European football’s showcase match for the first time. This year, as the stadium again hosts the final, the English will at least be saved the heartbreak of seeing their side lose in the final—all the four English clubs have already bowed out, with not a single club even making it to the quarterfinal stage. Just a few miles away in the north of London, Arsenal has been going through a similar hoodoo. Since leaving their spiritual home of Highbury in 2006 for the more expansive Emirates Stadium, the Gunners have failed to collect a single piece of silverware.

 

One team that will scoff at these suggestions is FC Barcelona. In 1992, Ronald Koeman scored a scorcher of a free-kick to seal the Catalans’ maiden European Cup. They’ve added three more since, including the most recent one in 2011 at this very ground. The way Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi are playing this season, Barca could go thrice. Whatever the result, Wembley will sparkle.