It’s the Champions League final. Arguably the pinnacle of all of soccer. You settle in for Atlético Madrid vs Real Madrid, another El Derbi madrileño but one played in Milan at the San Siro. As the broadcast starts, that familiar refrain begins the Champions League anthem, simply named “Champions League”. The first familiar notes stir memories of past triumph and glory. As the vocals hit – performed in UEFA’s three official languages, French, German and English – your emotions continue to rise. When the chorus reaches a crescendo, you’re reminded of a cathedral performance. Yes. You realize now that you’re here in the church of football, ready to worship your heroes. To witness a miracle. The players march out; you wonder if Cristiano Ronaldo will again find a way to take his shirt off; you can’t help but notice Fernando Torres’ glorious hair. You’re ready for it, peak football is about to be witnessed! You can feel it, the scribes will be retelling the story of this match for ages to come!
And then the whistle blows.
The seriousness and drama of the music befits the implied importance of the event it was composed for. When the European Cup became the UEFA Champions League in 1992, a new tune of appropriate gravitas was needed.The reformatted event had television rights to sell and new fans to win over. The new brand needed something memorable. UEFA turned to British composer Tony Britten and London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with vocals by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Its seriousness is reflected in the official version played at the beginning and end of every Champions League broadcast. If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket to the San Siro this year, you’ll hear the vocals sung in Italian, probably by somebody famous (Andrea Bocelli sang at the 2009 final in Rome).
Serious. Dramatic. Moving. And it so often sets you up for a letdown. The final is the only one-off round of the tournament, a do-or-die where teams sometimes play just to minimize mistakes. By the time the two finalists meet, they’ve been physically stretched to the max. They’ve gone through twelve months of league play, domestic cup rounds, international duty and of course their respective runs through the Champions League group and knockout rounds. The competition’s dirty little secret is that the key to success isn’t quality, but depth and endurance. It makes sense, then, that financial giant Real Madrid are playing playing for their 11th European championship, the most in competition history.
Too often this means that the opera singers and orchestra creating the swell of the pre-match theme overshadow the play on the pitch – at least when it comes to the final. The prime example occurred in 2003 between AC Milan and Juventus at Old Trafford. It was the first and only time two Italian sides met in the final. The first half was entertaining enough as both teams sought a quick start. An early Milan goal from Andriy Shevchenko was controversially disallowed, and the side continued to press Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon into stunning saves. But while the first half had promise, after each team hit the post early in the second half, they settled in and played not to lose through the end of regulation and extra time.
Both teams were so allergic to the goal that day that even the penalty shootout was dreadful, with several horrid penalties easily saved. Eventually the match saw Milan victorious when Shevchenko slotted home the winning spot kick to secure the trophy that neither side really seemed to want.
I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations about 0-0 matches all resulting in boredom, but Milan rarely dazzled during the tournament and the 2003 final remains the only goalless final since the Champions League rebrand in 1992.
One man, above all others, has single-handedly ruined many a final: Mr. José Mourinho. He loves to encourage his team to park the bus, turning games into something resembling your dentist pulling teeth. Such was the case in 2010 when his Inter squad met Bayern Munich in the final at the Bernabéu. After Inter dully dispatched tournament favorites Barça in the semifinals, few thought Bayern much of a chance against an Inter squad featuring Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o, and in-form Argentine striker Diego Milito, who struck twice that day in Madrid. Inter employed Mourinho’s trademark counterattacking style, losing the possession battle 67-33% but controlling the game and frustrating the German side (and many of those watching) with their organized defense. Both sides could have offered more entertainment, but Bayern star Franck Ribéry was suspended thanks to an ugly tackle in the first leg of the semifinal, while young Mario Balotelli was an unused sub for the Italian squad.
The 2010 final wasn’t the only match marred by Mourinho’s frustrating defensive style, as the manager also won with Porto in 2004, and of course we saw his hand at work with Chelsea and Real Madrid. I’m guessing those in charge of UEFA hadn’t considered the future manager’s dominance of the event while commissioning Britten to compose the theme music, or we might have ended up with something much more serene.
Finals, though, are a bit like diamonds: given enough time sorting through the coal and you eventually encounter a real treasure. Every once in awhile we witness a final so over-the-top dramatic that the Champions League anthem suddenly seems to make sense. The rather insufferable early rounds, the time spent calculating aggregate scores and factoring in away goals, even the monotonous finals of years past are forgotten.
Such was the case in 1999 when Bayern and Manchester United met at Camp Nou. In stoppage time, with Bayern clinging to a 1-0 lead produced from a sixth-minute Mario Basler goal, the Red Devils nabbed a corner and sent everybody forward in desperation, even goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. David Beckham’s corner bounced around the box until Teddy Sheringham swept the ball into the bottom corner, knotting the game at 1-1. Extra time now impossibly loomed.
With Bayern demoralized, United won another corner within moments. This time the ball fell for sub Ole Gunnar Solskjær who poked the ball into the roof of the net, for the lead, the win, the title and for glory.
The ending was so shocking that UEFA president Lenart Johansson, who had left his luxury box early to make his way down for the trophy presentation, couldn’t figure out why the losers were dancing. The trophy had to be stripped of the Bayern colors and quickly readorned for the presentation. Truly a moment, if there’s ever been one, that lives up to that theatrical theme music.
Fear not fans, Atleti and Real Madrid have been here before, and provided the most memorable final in recent memory. Two years ago at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, they produced and unforgettable match, nearly worthy of the majestic notes played before kickoff. A 93rd minute header by Sergio Ramos erased a 1-0 Atlético lead to force extra time. From there, the floodgates opened, and goals by Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo (yes, of course he took his shirt off) sealed Real Madrid’s 10th European championship.
But even if this year’s final doesn’t produce any sort of drama, even if it doesn’t live up to the hype implied by orchestra music and Druid-inspired chanting from opera singers (in three different languages!), we’ll still watch till the end. The “Champions League” will seep into your every pore. The emotions and the memories will come forth from the recesses of your brain. The Champions League anthem is arguably better than the play we see on the pitch.
And when the match is over and the champions of Europe have been crowned, sit back and absorb the music one last time. When watching the Euros and Copa América this summer you’ll hear a vast array of anthems, but those will seem fleeting and trite compared to the “Champions League” tune. Worry not; next year’s group stage is barely 100 days away.