THE MAGIC OF WEMBLEY

Wembley 2013
All set for the 2013 UEFA Champions League Final *** image courtesy of zimbio ***

East or west, invariably home is best. Football’s greatest annual game sees Europe’s elite teams battle it out in football’s most prestigious competition. No place would be better suited than football’s proverbial home.

Wembley will be the stage for what has now become the greatest show on earth. Forget the World Cup – that comes once every four summers. Forget the Olympic Games and the sports which we never knew existed and which we will never see on T.V. for another four years. Forget the American sports and the huge amount of following they get in the greatest country on earth. For worldwide appeal year in year out, look no further than the Champions League Final.

And so, in the 150th year since some sensible men decided to sit at the Freemason’s Tavern in London and draw up the set of rules that would govern an otherwise nonsensical game as football was at the time, it is apt that the sport’s biggest game is being held at football’s home.

Wembley, to say the least, rarely sees dull matches. In fact, such is the spirit around it that games there take on symbolic if not cultural significance. Consider the magic of unfancied Wigan Athletic winning the FA Cup against Manchester City, or Swansea City lifting the League Cup. Remember the countless FA Cup finals, promotion play-off finals and international friendlies that have set the world alight.

It was at Wembley in 1953 that Hungary, led by Ferenc Puskas and his band of merry technical magical Magyars that strolled all over and conquered England in a game that so defined England’s subsequent future. Because of this game, Wembley became the scene 13 years later where Geoff Hurst would score the World Cup’s most controversial goal, fans would run onto the pitch before the game was done and that iconic commentary – “they think it’s all over, it is now” – would be born as England became World champions.

On the European stage as well, Wembley has provided key moments in the European Cup Finals it has hosted. 1963 saw Milan introduce catennacio on the world stage as the Iberian grip on the European Cup was finally defeated. In 1968, Manchester United defeated Benfica to complete a phoenix-like rise from the ashes following the 1958 Munich air disaster. 1971 saw Ajax begin the period of total football. 1978 had Liverpool win their second consecutive European Cup, as English clubs single handedly dominated Europe for the next four years.  The culmination of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team was that all-important final of 1992. And nobody can forget the brilliant show on display in 2011 as Manchester United chased Barcelona’s shadows all night long.

Indeed it is against such a historic backdrop that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund find themselves as they take center stage in the 2013 Champions League Final. They need to provide the sort of narratives that previous Finals there have seen. Wembley does not do dour and dull. It never has, and it most certainly is not ready to now.

For that however, no pair of clubs are more appropriate. In the red corner is Bayern, who look to pack the heavier punches. Their Champions League run has seen them rise to to the grandest occasions, — none more so than their disposal of Barcelona – as their overall season has seen them escalate to the heights of greatness. It seems identical to their season last time out with the chance of a treble. Only that this season, it seems nobody can deny them.

But the team which had the most impact in denying them last term is the one they face in the Final. Dortmund, at least shattered Bayern’s treble hopes in 2012 by removing from the equation two of the three required trophies. In the process, they established a certain mini-dominance over Germany’s most dominant football club. Bayern may have swept away all in the Bundesliga, and they may have finished 25 points ahead of Dortmund, but they did not manage to defeat them in the League meetings.

As such, this may not be as much a contrast of style, but of superiority. Both teams are quick and technical. Both have that all admired German efficiency. For once, both are beloved despite being German based sides. A fast game lies in prospect and the tactics will keep shifting and changing. It makes for an exciting prospect.

In turn, it also represents just how far the German game has come. Yet, in the same light, it appears illusionary. These two clubs meet in the final much in the same manner that Real Madrid and Valencia did in 2000, or AC Milan and Juventus in 2003, or Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008. Except that, after those finals, there were no periods of Spanish dominance, or Italian hegemony, or even English superiority. The European Cup has expanded beyond that. It is, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, in an era of superclubs.

And on this night in Wembley, the superclub that exists, or rather the one in the making, is Bayern Munich. It is they who have the better finances – a wage bill almost double that of Dortmund’s. It is they who will have the glamour coach next season in Pep Guardiola, as well as none other than Dortmund’s glamour player. Mario Gotze will miss the final through injury, but it is the story that he will be at Bayern next year that hurts Dortmund most. If Bayern had any gap between them and Dortmund, next year, it significantly widens.

But that means that hope and determination is solely in Dortmund’s backyard. Win this (and they do have a realistic chance of doing so) and they will be at an all time high in an era where club finances deepen the existing inequalities within the game. Before the riches of Chelsea, of Manchester and Paris return next season, before the glamour of Milan and allure of Madrid and Barcelona come calling for their best players, this is their chance to make their mark.

Thus, 1997 will ring loud in their ears. It was this year when against all odds, Dortmund defeated mighty Juventus in their only other final appearance.  A repeat of the same would be welcome. Not just for them, but for the massive number of neutrals who are on their side and who have been romanced by their tantalizing football.

The clash of Germany’s titans is here, and England will provide the perfect podium. In spite of everything, and despite anything, Wembley is set for another magical showdown.

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