At 10pm on Saturday 19th May 2012, a crowd of well-heeled, well-dressed, well-behaved Bavarians filed out of the theatre onto Maximilianstraße, Munich, Germany. Many of the audience made their way across the street to a restaurant which was showing the UEFA Champions League Final taking place across town at the lit-up Allianz Arena. The good natured crowd’s local team, Bayern Munich, were aiming to achieve a new feat: to lift the Champions League trophy in their own stadium.
Bayern were playing against a visiting Chelsea team who had never won a Champions League; a Chelsea team who had not won away from home in this tournament all season.
The stage had been set for this theatrical drama unfolding in the stadium. In front of over 62,000 football fans, 2,400 members of the press, plus countless luminaries, VIPs and celebrities. All were football fans. All were riveted by the plot developing out on the pitch.
In that story, Bayern’s role was supposed to be that of heroes.
However, after a monumental match, all those in Munich wearing red realised with sickening clarity that, alas, their men were tragic heroes. Their fatal flaw: failure to land a killer blow.
Chelsea experienced an exactly opposite Champions League Final: elation snatched from repeated despair. The stomach churning reality of knowing almost for certain that defeat is coming, created by its very contrast an outpouring of relief and joy which will rarely be matched in any walk of life for all players and fans. Such was the Blue delight displayed when Didier Drogba struck home the winning penalty.
There were heroes across the Chelsea pitch, who played their parts to perfection, not least Petr Cech, whose error had allowed Bayern’s hearts to soar late in the second half, when he allowed Thomas Muller’s bouncing header to inexplicably cross his line. As the audience from the theatre, now riveted, were taking their first drink, midway through the second half, Cech looked, for all the world, to be Chelsea’s tragic hero, having risen to greatness in a first half which saw him make one of the best saves – onto post and bar with his legs – ever witnessed in a Champions League final.
But Cech was given the chance to redeem himself by another heroic moment, by a man who seems always to produce himself for such occasion: Didier Drogba powered home a late header to earn extra time, before putting his hand up to be the man to undo his team’s chances. Drogba fouled Bayern’s Frank Ribery in the penalty area. Penalty. Petr Cech, though, in saving from Bayern’s Arjen Robben, turned the tide of the game in a moment. It was not to be he, and Drogba, just yet, who would experience that mighty fall. Rather, it was Robben who, despite being consistently one of Bayern’s better players for some time, would fluff his lines today. With a sub-plot running through his having previously played for Chelsea, Robben had missed several clear chances from near and far throughout the match. He hit fifteen shots in the game; six more than the entire Chelsea team.
One of those efforts was crucial: this penalty.
After that moment, Robben looked dazed as he ran his usual lines on the right touch line. Bayern never really recovered. Chelsea seemed to have a force field around their goal, which had withstood all but one of the thirty five shots Bayern had mustered throughout 120 minutes of pulsating football.
A goal from a late corner preventing Champions League success: Bayern have been here before, in 1998. A penalty shootout in a Champions League Final. Both teams had been here before, too. Bayern won theirs, in 2001, against Valencia, in Milan. Chelsea lost theirs against Manchester United, in Moscow, in 2008. But nobody had been here before. This is Munich, with Bayern five shots away from achieving the dream of dreams. This was a new story.
The odds were stacked against Chelsea. History was stacked against Chelsea. Juan Mata, for Chelsea, stepped up to take the first penalty looking confident, and Bayern’s Manuel Neuer saved. This drama appeared soon to be over. The happy ending in sight for all in Bavarian Red.
Petr Cech had not forgotten his role as hero, though, and neither had Didier Drogba. Both are very different characters, but Cech’s penalty saves, and Drogba’s penalty strike, under the most severe of tests, were magnificent.
One problem, though, for tragic heroes, is that their downfall is made all the more painful as they fall from such a great height. The other is that they know their fall came at their own hand. For Bastian Sweinsteiger, who delighted his compatriots by sending Iker Casillas the wrong way to win the semi-final shootout – thereby setting up this historic occasion – this could not have been more clear. His stoccato run-up failed to bemuse Cech, who tipped his penalty agonisingly onto the post, and away. One or two centimetres of Czech finger proved to be the difference between two otherwise inseparably matched battling giants.
Sweinsteiger appeared, during his run-up, to falter. He will already have replayed that moment many times internally. As will Robben, with his extra time opportunity. As will Gomez, so often Bayern’s fulcrum, with his. Ribery will wonder what might have been had his offside goal seen him produce his run a moment or two later.
The Chelsea fans who touched down on runways up and down England – and across the world – won’t care why. They won’t care how. They are elated. Ecstatic. Tired and emotional. Satiated by the knowledge that history cannot take this one away, Chelsea will have woken late on Sunday with a feeling of great joy.
Chelsea’s joy, made all the greater for the pain they endured throughout the play, is matched, equally, by the opposite emotions Bayern experienced. But while the Chelsea team and its fans were celebrating, and asking if they were watching in Tottenham, many Bayern supporters stayed, not wanting the moment to end, even though it clearly had. They were distraught; yet they were magnanimous.
In the lift, descending from the top tier of the Allianz Arena, two forlorn Bayern Munchen fans had found themselves having to go up to the top and back down again as they tried to traverse the maze to find their bus home – on level zero. They remained silent. Of the four in the elevator, one neutral broke this dead air with the phrase “bad luck, guys” before the conversation lapsed, once more, to silence. Later, on the U-bahn underground train, a delighted Chelsea fan would tell a cluster of sad, but smiling, Bayern supporters that they were “gracious” and “civilised.” They were.
As the doors finally opened on what was had been a very long ride, someone uttered another statement which summed things up, “that’s football.”
The greatest show on earth doesn’t always leave one feeling good afterwards, but it will squeeze every drop of emotion from you on the way.
And you’ll be back.
We all will.
Who could forgo drama like this?
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