The all-English final is almost upon us. In Moscow the Russian owned Chelsea and American owned Manchester United will pit their multi-national playing and coaching staff against each other for victory in the biggest club game ever played between two, in name and home at least, English clubs.
They began their association with this competition some time ago. Chelsea were champions of England when Gabriel Hanot sent out the invites to the first jamboree back in 1955, and declined the offer. Matt Busby’s RSVP was more positive the following year, openly defying the FA to drag English football kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.
In this twenty-first century alone the revamped version of the old continents’ premier competition has provided an all Spanish, all-Italian and now an all English final. Since it became no longer the preserve of League champions only the door was always open to this kind of big league domination and La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League have greedily taken over.
As coach of the Russian national team Gus Hiddink will be present in Moscow on Wednesday, and whilst in charge of PSV Eindhoven in 2005 he was responsible for providing the only Champions League semi-finalist from outside of Spain, Italy and England in the last four seasons. And if we go back further into Hiddinks history, twenty years ago this month he was winning the trophy during a previous stint with the Dutch club in a footballing era never to be seen again.
It was only five years away from becoming the Champions League, but in the 1987-88 season the European Cup was still contested as Hanot had originally intended – the champions of each European association go into a hat, are drawn at random and play over two legs until two are left to contest a one-off game in May for that glorious captain-obscuring trophy. No coefficients, no four places, no self-perpetuating glory. It was short, sweet and unique. The novelty value of European football always lay in its rarity, something that evaporates when you play Roma six times in one calendar year.
If you played at all that is. English champions Everton were absent that season as the clubs of fair albion were still banned from all European competition post Heysel. The open draw format would however ensure a first round tie that the current Champions League was set up to avoid. Whilst Lillestrom played Linfield, Shamrock Rovers took on Omonia Nicosia and Neuchatel Xamax did battle with FC Kuusyi, the champions of Italy and Spain – Maradona’s Napoli and the Real Madrid of Hugo Sanchez – were forced to compete for the right to stay in the competition longer than September 20th.
If that was surreal, Maradona’s debut in the elite European competition took him back to the Bernabeu to be watched by precisely no fans at all. After crowd trouble the previous season Madrid had to play their first home game behind closed doors, and one wonders if UEFA would have the cahones to mete out that punishment to a giant of the game for such a prestigious fixture these days. Would they in fact hand out anything similar to the draconian punishment they imposed on KS Partizani? After having four players sent off against Benfica, the Albanian champions were expelled from the competition before they could play the second leg.
El Diego’s first of only two cracks at the European Cup ended swiftly, with Real winning two-nil at the deserted Bernebeu and earning a one-all draw in Naples. The Spanish champions did make it to the semi-finals before running into Hiddink’s PSV and losing on away goals. Waiting for them in the final in Stuttgart were Benfica, who having survived the ordeal of KS Partizani got the better of Steaua Bucharest in the semi-finals. From communist eastern Europe, Steaua had been champions of Europe just two years earlier. Hiddink’s team would eventually triumph on penalties, capping a fairly incredible first year in full-time management in which he also won the Dutch first division title and the KNVB Cup.
I wonder if Hiddink will reflect upon how the competition has changed since those heady days when he witnesses the wealth and power of the Premier League’s finest on Wednesday. For much of the Champions League era Hiddink has concerned himself with international management rather than club management, taking Holland and South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals and last time pushing eventual winners Italy to the brink of elimination in round two. The shift from European Cup to Champions League, from level playing field to big club love-in, took place largely in his absence.
When he sees John Terry tackling Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole skipping past Rio Ferdinand or Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard contesting the midfield, he may also get a sense of what might have been. As many people’s favourite for the England job post-Eriksson they could and should have been his players, but Hiddink was eventually overlooked on grounds of nationality rather than talent as the FA plumped for Steve McClaren, with horrendous results. In a delicious irony Hiddink instead went to manage Russia, who nipped in ahead of England to qualify from group E.
An all-English Champions League Final weeks before a European Championships for which the England national team could not qualify is quite a paradox. When the game is decided on Wednesday Rooney, Terry and Lampard will go on holiday for the summer and Gus Hiddink will go to work. The Premier League might boast enough riches to make Solomon blush but not everything is as rosy in the garden of English football as the stature of her clubs may lead you to believe.