May 21 2011
The 2011 Champions League Final takes place at Wembley a week today and everyone who is anyone in European and, indeed, world football will be travelling to Britain for the event. Not the least entertaining aspect of the occasion should be the enforced chumminess between the FA hosts and the Fifa president Sepp Blatter, whose organisation awarded England’s ill-fated World Cup bid a derisory two votes in Zurich last December.
Blatter and his colleague Michel Platini were believed to have been fervently hoping to avoid another all-English final like the 2008 clash between Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow. And their wish has been granted, as United knocked out Chelsea at the quarterfinal stage this season, while Tottenham Hotspur fell to Real Madrid. But an all-Premiership final would, of course, be “English” in name only, with the top sides all featuring players from around the world.
It was a very different story when Spurs last played in the European Cup, as it was called then, 49 long years ago. The famous “Glory Glory Hallelujah” team of 1960/61 had won the domestic League and FA Cup double and, with a formidable manager in the Scarborough-born Bill Nicholson, were recognised as one of the best ever English club sides. Their attempt to triumph in Europe was a journey into the unknown and carried with it a sense of adventure that’s hard to recapture in an age when everyone is so blasé about foreign travel. But to a football-loving child listening to the matches on the wireless and reading the strictly monochrome coverage in the newspapers, the excitement was tangible. The away games in particular were fraught with mystery and suspense and Tottenham’s odyssey included a third-round trip behind the Iron Curtain to play a ruthless Czechoslovakian Army team, Dukla Prague, on an icy pitch. The Englishmen lost 1-nil, but slammed the Czechs 4-1 in the second leg at White Hart Lane.
Their reward was an exotic semifinal tie against the Portuguese team Benfica, footballing aristocrats who had won the trophy the previous season and whose line-up included Eusebio, the prodigiously talented black centre forward who had never been seen in England before. Spurs went down 3-1 at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon but won the return game 2-1 in north London. It wasn’t enough to get them to the final, in which Benfica triumphed again, but the heroic manner of their losing lived long in the memory.
It was, of course, Manchester United who finally claimed the Holy Grail, becoming the first English side to win the European Cup when they defeated Benfica in 1968 at Wembley. All of their 1960s superstars were on the pitch and for those of them, including Bobby Charlton, who remembered their “Busby Babes” team-mates who died in the Munich air crash of 1958, it was an intensely poignant moment.
Hopefully, Man U will approach next weekend’s final with something of the flair and adventure that their forebears demonstrated on their European travels 40 years ago. Their opponents Barcelona, my ante-post choice, are now down to 4-9 with Coral. They are a sublimely skilful team but United’s will to win on home soil will be a powerful factor and they may just shade it at 7-4 with Victor Chandler.