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So much more than just a final
It is the biggest club game in the world, and it's coming to a stadium which was known as the Cathedral of football for most of the last century. History with a modern twist is both the literal visual landscape imposed by the reconstructed Wembley stadium, and the issues affecting or afflicting each of the finalists.
Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup - as it was then known - in 1968. They lifted the trophy at Wembley and have since won it a further two times. This time they are aiming for a fourth. Current Premier league winners, champions of England, their manager, an authoritarian knighted Scot who has been in the driving seat of the club's squads for over twenty years, has spent the week trying to keep his men focused amid a torrent of media inquisitions over post-modern social concepts such as 'superinjunctions' and Twitter. Sir Alex lashed out with the methods he knows best;bullying and intimidation of pressmen who cross his guarded boundaries: "Let's get 'im" he told his press officer of a journalist who mentioned the unmentionable, unaware that his words were being broadcast, "Let's ban him from Friday's presser".
Barcelona, the guests, too hope to take the Cup home for a fourth time - they first won it in 1992, also at Wembley. A young man by the name of Pep Guardiola, a graduate of Barcelona's famous La Masia academy, was at the time playing under the guidance of Johan Cruyff. Today, Guardiola is the guiding manager of a group of men who have become Spanish Champions, and who have a staggering eight members of the squad emerging from the very same Masia. Guardiola's camp has seen less controversy this week, as they took to Arsenal's training ground for their preparations, just like they did in '92, but they did face some post-millenia technical issues. The threat of a cloud of volcanic ash spreading slowly from Iceland towards European skies made Guardiola move Barcelona's trip forward. They have spent the week in London, hoping to avoid the stress and worry caused by the same phenomenon last year, when a long and bumpy bus drive to Milan led to their exit from the semi-final.
The only club to have enjoyed the levels of success Guardiola's Barcelona has had with such a large number of home-groomed players was Sir Alex's Manchester of about a decade ago, when a posse of now-veteran international household names picked up titles as if they were daisies growing wildly in the field of dreams. Gary Neville, whose testimonial was held earlier this week, Paul Scholes, David Beckham are some of the names who started out as kids and became warriors under the expert tutelage of Ferguson's determined ambition. And, of course, Ryan Giggs.
Guardiola may be looking at his opponent thinking of the shape of things to come. If he remains at Barcelona for 20 years, for example, will he have the same air of wise intolerance? Will he rule quite so unquestioned? While Ferguson may look at Guardiola with a hint of recognition: a young man becoming great at a grown man's job.
The pressure, as kick-off approaches, becomes almost palpable. The demand for tickets (some priced at thousands of pounds) has been overwhelming. Corporate companies who shelled out five-figure seasonal club memberships to Wembley have been astonished to discover this event is not covered by the blanket purchase, and about 600 press accreditation requests from major media worldwide have been rejected. Box Office doesn't even begin to do this event justice.
The moment itself approaches, and the tacticians forecast Manchester's plans to quash Barcelona's possession, and Manchester's players pronounce that Messi cannot be beaten man to man, and Barcelona's goal-keeper, Valdes, about to play his third final, asserts that "Manchester come at you all guns blazing", and the tourists congregate around what used to be the world's most famous stadium, taking pictures of it's spaceship-like new curves. This is it, one can almost hear everyone thinking as one, this is what it's about. It is not often that a major final is actually played by the two best teams - so rare in itself is this sense of justice.
Back in Argentina, a journalist wrote earlier this year that this Barcelona side has the fantasia of Pele's Santos, cultivates possession of the ball the same way that Cruyff's teachings dictated, and picks up trophies like (Alfredo) De Stefano's Real Madrid. . . "If it's not the best in history, it's very similar to it".
Yet arguably, Manchester United under Ferguson could claim to be 'the best in history'. Without the poetry of Barcelona, they boast the hunger and strength of Rooney coupled with the incisive precision of Park. And of course, the calm, solid experience of Giggs. They have won and they have overcome times of not winning and they are on a winning streak again. They are universal rather than English, legendary rather than popular.
With a new age of telecommunications dawning, with a demand for TV feeds, information, images and commercial opportunities which has overwhelmed Uefa itself, and with the frenzy of the summer transfer window keeping the agents with their phones burning, this is so much more than a game.
Guardiola remembered recently, paying tribute to Cruyff, the Dutch master's words before their triumph at Wembley in 1992: "Get out there and have fun". Guardiola says he can still perfectly recall what Cruyff told them that day;"that we have suffered enough during the season just to get here, that we were now at Wembley and the suffering was now over. "Do me a favour, " he said, "Look at the pitch, the crowd, and enjoy this wonderful stadium." For both teams, let it be so.
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