Friday, May 24, 2013

London looks for a happy ending

UEFA Champions League Final 2013: 
Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund
Wembley Stadium, London  2.25pm EST

After the horrific events on Wednesday, London has not been able to think about soccer this week until now.

The visiting thousands of German fans mostly arrived on Friday to be greeted by a monsoon, which put a dampener on UEFA’s much advertised Champions League festival and its outdoor activities at the 2012 Olympic Park. I spied a number of yellow and black or red and blue scarves on the South Bank today, but a couple of Bayern fans huddled over their lager by the London Eye as the rain lashed around them was as festive as it got.

The forecast for Saturday is sunny however, and with an evening kick-off I am hoping the visiting thousands of Germans have a day to remember. The last time two foreign sets of fans descended on the capital for a Champions Cup final, when Barcelona beat Sampdoria in 1992, was a gloriously warm day of Mediterranean football culture in London, with jubilant, singing supporters leaving locals with fond memories. "They're a bit more colourful than normal, aren't they?" I remember a woman on the Tube saying to her friend.

Now German football is flavour of the month as English fans cast envious glances across the North Sea to the affordable tickets and standing areas of the Bundesliga, two luxuries absent from the EPL. The German league might not have the galaxy of stars of the Premier League, but its fan culture and supplying both Champions League finalists have forced the most die-hard little Englander to doff his cap to his historical bête noir.

49% of Bundesliga players are foreign compared to 65% in the Premier League but only two of the Bundesliga managers are not German, while 16 of the EPL's 20 are from outside England. The articles worshipping German football are everywhere and even the new Nike England kit looks like Germany's.

Unlike Spanish or Italian soccer, the Bundesliga is also now on free-to-air cable TV here, increasing its popularity. We might be hosting the showpiece, but that's all we can say as our import-stuffed club sides were not at the CL races this season. 

Watching the Bundesliga, I am not sure it is ahead of the Premier League as a whole in quality. Behind the two Champions League finalists this year finished Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke and Freiburg. Would they beat their English equivalents Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham?

To that end I will be supporting Borussia Dortmund as Germany needs great teams beyond Bayern, whose hoovering up of young German talent is a little depressing. That said, Bayern’s playing style is a joy with its astute use of angles and crosses, an antidote to the received wisdom of tiki-taka down the middle. And who wouldn't want the amazing Ribery and Robben in their side?

UEFA has unusually sited two of the last three Champions League finals at Wembley, thanks to its 90,000 capacity, modern facilities (opened 2007) and crucially, the space available for UEFA and corporate hospitality. A UEFA official in Switzerland told me that was the first thought these days in allocating finals. Europe’s governing body has upped its marketing over recent years, apparently to ape FIFA’s self-promotion, although it is hard to see how the two Swiss-based bodies are in direct competition beyond scheduling issues.

The raised ticket prices, the move from Wednesday to Saturday night and the Champions Festival are all a part of the drive to make this a showpiece event like the Superbowl instead of just a final tie.

After soccer being all but forgotten about for a few days, let us hope we have a final to savour.



-Sean O'Conor

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