Our European guru educates and enlightens
Two weeks before the final, the word was that the fix was in. Chelsea were going to win 1-0. Ferguson would not be too upset to lose. The process by which this king of games was to be fixed wasn’t clear – “nothing as crude as a bribe,” one journalist hinted to a colleague over a gin in a Kensington hotel.
By the morning of the final, the rumours had reached such a pitch that Rob Hughes, the doyen of the international football hack pack, even mentioned them in the Herald Tribune, correctly noting that there was “not a single shred of evidence” behind them.
By Wednesday night, as United cavorted in delight in a sodden Luzhniki to the strains of the egg-chasers' anthem World in Union, the story of the fix was as dead as Chelsea’s hopes of lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy in Moscow.
The cynical assumption was presumably that in Russia, a country where all kinds of things are for sale, even a game of this magnitude could be bought if you were rich enough – and Roman Abramovich is certainly rich enough. But the conspiracy theory was swiftly and gloriously refuted by the hunger, endeavour and talent both sides displayed.
My abiding memory from the night itself was the odd juxtaposition of jubilation and despair. Even a United fan felt a brief twinge of compassion at the sight of John Terry sobbing into Avram Grant’s comforting shoulder.
But that’s one of the great things about football: it can deliver such unexpected emotions. And, as Grant wandered in the rain in a zombified state, I was actually moved to feel sorry for the richest club in the world.
I mention the fix rumour only to give you a flavour of how surreal Moscow was on the day of the final. There was a Tsar Nicholas II lookalike in Red Square who was charging fans a small fee to have their picture taken. Sadly, he’d gone by the time I got there. Andrei Lugovoi, the man wanted by British authorities in questioning with the murder by polonium of Alexander Litvinenko, had bought a ticket for the match.
At the Ritz Carlton, the Chelsea squad hotel, in the early afternoon on the day of the final, the players and coaches were virtually on public display in the lobby. Henk Ten Cate, sitting with his arms folded, looked gloriously grumpy until he decided his spell as a prize exhibit was over. Avram Grant was sitting quietly talking to a mate while Sheva strolled out and gave bear-hugs to three locals.
And then the rest of the team were ushered through, signing a few autographs as they went, Claude Makelele looking as diminutive as Paul Daniels and somebody shouting to Terry: “John, John, John! Good luck” and patting him on the shoulder. Maybe his fate was sealed at that moment.
For both teams, it was a long day’s journey to the final, which kicked off at 11.45pm local time. In 2005, Liverpool wanted to go bowling to avoid cabin fever but settled for a squad viewing of Meet the Fockers. United like to kill time with fiercely competitive pub quizzes set by the club photographer and, I presume, Chelsea’s little foray into the lobby was intended as a diversion for players who must have been dying for a kick-off which was still nine hours away.
Across the road, in the Grand Marriott Hotel, a group of champagne-quaffing English fans of uncertain allegiance had decided, for no obvious reason, to kill time by shouting out the names of football clubs, teams and players at random: "Stockport County! Western Samoa! Wigan Athletic! Joey Jones!”
After all that surreal madness, the game itself could have been an anti-climax. Obviously it wasn’t and to my utter relief it certainly wasn’t the kind of game that Jorge Valdano could have dismissed as “sh*t on a stick”. For me, Chelsea just shaded it on quality of play, being slightly more dominant in the second half than United were in the first.
Florent Malouda, whose selection dismayed and mystified many Blues fans, showed the class and the menace that justified his price tag. Neither Michael Ballack or Cristiano Ronaldo imposed themselves as they would have liked. For me, the best midfielder on the pitch, for industry, persistence and making very few errors, was Carlos Tevez.
In extra time, melodrama and nerves took over and then the penalties in which Petr Cech, despite glowing so luminously I wondered if he’d been sponsored by Stabilo highlighter pens, didn’t really distract any of the United penalty takers. His double save in the first half, though, was amazing.
As Anelka walked up to the spot, two European journalists behind me shook their heads, and gestured to suggest it would go high or wide. They were almost right.
Afterwards, I asked Franz Beckenbauer – shameless name dropping but it’s not often you get to talk to the only skipper to have lifted the European Cup three times in triumph – to sign my copy of Champions.
As he elegantly autographed the magazine, I asked him what he thought of the final. He pursed his thumb and finger together using an internationally recognised gesture meaning narrow margins, saying more in one movement than most of the pundits have done all season.
I know there’s a slip/cup/lip gag in this story somewhere but I can’t make it work – feel free to suggest one – but Chelsea were one slip away from the European Cup. Or a bar and a post away. That is some feat.
How the club reacts to that will be a true test of its character. The worst that can happen is if the recriminations continue to leak all over the tabloids and civil war breaks out.
Because, as they proved especially in that second half, Chelsea are – and it’s easy to forget this amid all the hype about Abramovich’s wealth – a proper football team. And on Wednesday they pushed Manchester United all the way. It’s not a bad foundation to build on – if the club has the wisdom to do so.
To push Manchester United right to the very end was a superb achievement for Avram Grant and would be so for any manager. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson is the manager of managers!
I can't help but think that Avram should be praised whilst John Terry should be the Chelsea criminal in all this. Also, Nicolas Anelka - a £15m striker with penalty taking experience who refused to take a penalty because he claimed to have come on as a right-back. Julian Belletti certainly didn't complain. He willing took and scored his penalty, has scored more goals than Anelka this season and cost a fifth of the price!
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