A Blaze of Champions League Glory

Somewhere between Cristiano Ronaldo missing his spot kick and John Terry stepping up to take his own, I accepted that this simply wasn’t Manchester United’s day.

I also quickly adopted the loser mentality which holds, essentially, that simply making a one-game, winner-take-all championship final is almost as good as winning. One game is a lottery, especially when the teams involved (in this case, Manchester United and Chelsea) are evenly matched. After 120 minutes of a gruelling Champions League Final the score was still tied one-all. United should’ve been two, possibly three up by half-time, but failed to convert their domination into goals. Chelsea had bossed the game ever since, albeit with nothing but a post (courtesy Didier Drogba) and a crossbar (Frank Lampard) to show for it. The game was headed inexorably towards a penalty shootout when Drogba slapped Nemanja Vidic and was sent off (the incident recalled a line from a famous Dave Chapelle skit). His dismissial necessitated a rejigging of Chelsea’s penalty takers, which is how John Terry–a central defender by trade–was given responsibility for the most important kick in team history.

Which brings me back to my earlier resignation. All Terry had to do was score and Chelsea would be champions of Europe. As he placed the ball on the spot (whilst ostensibly ignoring Edwin van der Sar’s gamesmanship) I was hastily appraising United’s year. It had to be deemed a success, no matter what happened in the next few seconds. They’d won a second consecutive Premiership title and made strides in Europe–and besides, losing a one-off to the most expensive team in world football was hardly anything to be ashamed of. I steeled myself for the inevitable.

And then Terry missed.

I watched the game at the Unicorn, a pub in downtown Calgary where I tried killing TJP last February. When Terry’s kick clanged against the post, the place erupted. I’d watched the first 120 minutes with my friend Jimmy (a lifelong Chelsea supporter…and yes, they apparently do exist), but for the shootout I joined a table of United supporters seated next to the bar’s big screen t.v.. As Terry collapsed in agony my new mates and I began to celebrate wildly. (And without dwelling on it for too long, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy: Terry has, in the past, uttered racial epithets at an opponent, mocked a group of American supporters following 9/11, and been videotaped parking in a handicap spot. In Moscow, during the fracas in which Didier Drogba was expelled, he spat at Carlos Tevez. Moreover, he’s also Captain Chelsea–a club which represents everything reprehensible about modern football. But I digress; there’re more important things to discuss.) When United’s Anderson followed Terry’s miss by blasting his spot kick right through Petr Cech, one of the guys (Sean, or however it’s spelt) literally bear-hugged the wind out of me.

Consequently, I was hunched over on the ground when Nicolas Anelka missed the decisive kick and handed United the trophy. I literally don’t remember what happened after that. I do know I went apeshit, but the exact ordering of things is blurry. I’m pretty sure I ran around the bar shaking hands (all of which belonged to complete strangers), made various phone calls, and (this I remember vividly) shared a few tears with a guy from Salford. I exchanged condolensces with Jimmy, then made my way back to the front for the trophy presentation. Much yelling ensued.

It was then, as I celebrated with four complete strangers, I realized how grossly mistaken I’d been when I’d decided (admittedly during a fit of pique) that making a final was almost as good as winning it. It isn’t; it ain’t (and I’m quoting the movie I’m watching right now) the same ballpark, the same league, the same fucking sport. Winning the Premiership is great, but it’s often lacking that climactic moment–that decisive “this is where victory was achieved” moment like van der Sar’s penalty save–which seals a knockout tournament like the Champions League. That’s not to suggest winning Europe is “better.” It’s simply a matter of fact.

It’s also a more special occasion, especially for a United supporter (the team’s relative lack of European success has been well-documented and is a constant thorn in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side). Nine long years elapsed between That Night in Barcelona and That Night in Moscow. Given the average age of United’s squad, Ferguson’s acquisition of tactical nous and the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s at least a half-decent chance it’ll happen again before long. Yet even if it doesn’t (if Ronaldo leaves for Madrid, for instance) I’ll still happily remember last Wednesday, a day when resignation turned into belief–and when belief begat an outpouring of total and utter joy.

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