The suggestion that UEFA conspired to knock Chelsea out of the Champions League can be put to rest. The inference that Europe’s governing body were desperate for an historically important final is a joke. UEFA proved long ago that they care little for history by revamping the European Cup in the first place.
When UEFA introduced a group stage to what was then the European Cup in 1992-93 – thereby creating the re-branded Champions League – it signalled an awareness that football had transcended its working class roots and become a multi-million dollar industry in its own right.
And while the face of European football has changed irrevocably, from the loss of the Cup Winner’s Cup to the G14 and beyond, few could begrudge the purists for purring in anticipation as Manchester United squared up to Barcelona in Rome.
When the dust settles on what was hopefully an epic Champions League final overnight, all the talk will be of the showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Few will still be grumbling about conspiracy theories – the odd Chelsea fan aside.
My friend Morten is a life-long fan of Norwegian club Bodø/Glimt, and having long ago relocated to Oslo, he often flies home and away to support his team.
After one particularly galling defeat away at Aalesunds last year, he fumed at having to share the same plane home as the referee – whom Morten labelled “incompetent.”
The referee in question? None other than Tom Henning Ovrebo.
But Ovrebo’s performance in the semi-final, second-leg between Chelsea and Barcelona will be confined to the annals of history by the time United and the Catalans run out at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Hopefully it’s a final that lives up to all the hype – particularly after last year’s showpiece event fell slightly short in Moscow.
Any doubts as to the global significance of the Champions League final should be dispelled by the size of the media circus that descended upon Rome.
If you flicked on CNN or the BBC in the build-up to the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world was about to stop turning – at least for ninety minutes.
Given the calibre of the two clubs in question, it’s no surprise that interest in this year’s final reached such frenzied proportions.
Manchester United need no introduction, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side hoping to become the first team to defend a Champions League title since the introduction of the new format.
Likewise, Barcelona are one of the biggest names in world football.
But it’s the style of football on display from Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering outfit that has everybody talking.
I’ve been lucky enough to catch most of Barça’s games on pay TV this year and while critics swooned over their 6-2 demolition of Real Madrid this month, the Catalans were equally ruthless in coming from behind to hammer Athletic Bilbao 4-1 in the recent Spanish Cup final.
Their free-flowing football has drawn widespread acclaim, even if their tendency to pontificate endlessly as flag-bearers of Catalan nationalism irks some – not the least their diametrically opposed city rivals Espanyol.
For neutrals the showdown between United and Barça represents a dream finale to what is undoubtedly the premier football competition in Europe.
UEFA supremo Michel Platini may be determined to strip back some power from Europe’s biggest clubs – not surprising, since former champions like Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade are these days largely forgotten – but even Platini must be pleased with the grandiose match-up between two of Europe’s undisputed elite.
Here’s hoping the 2009 Champions League final is remembered first and foremost for the football on the pitch.
The Stadio Olimpico is a notorious hotspot for hooliganism, and Roman police rarely hesitate to wade in with batons swinging – particularly when English fans are involved.
One thing is certain: this year’s Champions League final is one for the ages – if only for the unprecedented media coverage it has generated across the globe.
Hopefully the game itself lived up to all expectations.