What we take solace in sometimes breaks our hearts beyond repair. The very competition which ingrained Real Madrid’s status in the history of football caused exactly that kind of hurt following Zinedine Zidane’s volley against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Prior to 2011, Real Madrid had been shown the exit door at the Round of 16 for six straight seasons in the Champions League until Jose Mourinho (aided by the luck of the draw) took them through to two semi-finals.
Did those two semi-finals manage to take away the aches and the bad memories of those years spent in obscurity? The answer is no- mainly because in 2011, they ran into their Spanish rivals and according to the UEFA rankings, the best club in Europe currently, Barcelona. 2012 brought back more painful memories as they ran into the side Madristas refer to simply as ‘La Bestia Negra’.
You would think that a team referred to as the ‘Black Beast’ would be made up of calm players- the kind who have ice running through their veins. However, that very side has lost five European Cup finals. Five of those defeats have come in their previous six attempts. The trophy has provided unspeakable horrors for them, namely in 1999 and 2012.
FC Bayern fans would love to see their team finally conquer the demons of 2010 and 2012. Unfortunately, even if Bayern goes on to win a record number of finals in the next couple of seasons, those defeats, especially the one in 2012, will forever remain ingrained in the history of the club. While the two teams Bayern lost to in 1999 and 2012 have better records (in terms of percentages) in finals than Bayern, they have had their fair share of heart-breaks in this competition too.
Manchester United of-course lost two finals, in 2009 and 2011. In the middle year, 2010, they were beaten by Bayern on what is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking ways of losing a tie, the away goals rule. Chelsea was beaten by that very rule against Barcelona in a highly controversial semi-final in 2009. They lost the 2008 final in the very manner in which they won the 2012 finals, on penalties.
Speaking of penalties, AC Milan lost one final in a shoot-out of-course after leading the game against Liverpool, 3-0. Milan has won five European cups but has had little success since 2007, even being embarrassed by United by four goals once. Their city rivals Inter won the tournament in 2010 but has not even qualified for this season. Ironically, the team which is considered by many to be the best one in Italy has won just two European Cups. Juventus has suffered five defeats in the final, one of the most recent ones coming in 1997 in the hands of Borussia Dortmund.
In Dortmund, we find an example of a club that won the trophy but destroyed itself in the process. They followed up their victory in 1997 with a semi-final appearance in 1998. They kept on trying to ‘purchase’ success in their bid to prevent Bayern from dominating German football. Alas, as all of you have already realized, it ended in heartbreak and almost bankruptcy in 2005. This season, Dortmund come in with a young side filled with youth academy players with one goal- to show what they can do. Their aim isn’t to win the competition; they are a profitable club which escaped from unmitigated disaster.
Dortmund has risen from obscurity; some former winners haven’t been quite so lucky. Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest, Hamburger SV and Nottingham Forest are some former winners who have struggled since their victories. Another former winner of-course is Ajax. This competition is also ingrained into Ajax’s DNA. Unfortunately, following a final defeat in the 1996 season, they haven’t been able to push themselves to their limits and reach yet another final.
Speaking of pushing to the limits, Manchester City and PSG are ready to push as far as their owners’ finances are concerned. Some English commentators predicted a Manchester City victory in last season’s Champions League. What one often tends to forget that the European Cup is a traditional tournament- City, faced with Bayern, a four-time winner, Villarreal a former finalist and Napoli didn’t really stand much of a chance.
Money isn’t enough to win the Champions League. Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich had to wait for a long time before landing the coveted piece of silverware. Ironically, Chelsea won it through the grit and determination of their players rather than through stylish and eye-catching football. Even a great youth academy isn’t the necessary formula to success. Bayern, with their famous youths, made the final in 2010 and 2012 but couldn’t win it. The missing ingredient is sometimes luck.
While other teams will look to the highlight clashes such as that between Real Madrid and City on Match-day One, I will be looking forward to a clash between two traditional sides (this is not to say that Madrid and City aren’t traditional), Bayern and Valencia. Valencia of-course was on the losing side in two consecutive finals in 2000 and 2001.
The sheer hard work required to reach the finals is understated; losing them can break players and managers down unthinkably. As Bayern and Valencia, two sides much too familiar with heartbreak in this competition take to the pitch on the 19th, some of their older fans and experienced players can be forgiven for breathing a heavy sigh.
Is a feel of the ‘poisoned chalice’ really worth the sheer hard work? In a world of heartbreak such as the UEFA Champions League, the only solace remains a feel of the silver trophy. But as we all know, the wonderful feeling associated with winning the trophy lasts for a little while. Inevitable heartbreak always follows.