I Was There: Fans Recount Memories of World Football's Biggest Matches

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2013

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 16:  Corinthian fans celebrate victory during the FIFA Club World Cup Final Match between Corinthians and Chelsea at International Stadium Yokohama on December 16, 2012 in Yokohama, Japan.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

There are few joys in the world as entertaining and as emotionally draining as being part of a live football match, watching on from the sidelines with the players within touching distance, feeling the atmosphere, the tension and the excitement.

Of course, the bigger the match, the better.

Before a big grudge match, an entertaining classic, a knockout game or even a cup final, the anticipation can build up for days beforehand, when you count down the hours and minutes until you take your seat, awaiting the scenes to be played out before you on carpet-like green turf.

The exhilaration, the comedowns, the bounce-backs, the unending, roller-coaster drama which comes and goes from minute to minute, until at last the full-time whistle sounds...and with it comes the greatest of elations, or the utmost despair.

It's not just the game itself, the 90 minutes, which provides the drama. Stories to tell of travels to far-flung lands, memories of meeting strangers, celebrating with them, sharing a moment of delirium with them.

And, if all goes well, the realisation of what your team has achieved. A cup, a derby win, a historic moment when after all else is forgotten, or even the bittersweet taste of inglorious, unjustified defeat, and you can still lay claim to say I was there.


Will Tidey: UEFA Champions League final, 1999, Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich

I remember getting to Stanstead airport at 6 in the morning and having a breakfast pint with my Dad. The excitement was building and there were United shirts everywhere. We landed at Girona and were hoarded onto a coach bound for Barcelona, still having not been given the tickets we paid for.

As we got off the coach it became clear hundreds of United fans had been scammed. A tour company in Manchester had fleeced us and we were without tickets for our team's biggest match in over 30 years. Some just accepted their fate, but Dad and I got very lucky and found a Spanish student selling two tickets down a side street.

A frantic run to the cash point later, we had what we wanted.

The game was a blur. We were up high in Camp Nou and I remember watching down as United struggled to put passes together and looked a team out of ideas. Bayern went ahead in the first half and it looked as though our trip would end in disappointment.

When the clock hit 90 minutes, I went to pick up my bag, but Dad stopped me. "There's still time," he said.

I'll never forget the eruption when Teddy Sheringham deflected Ryan Giggs' shot into the corner to level things. Fans I'd never met were hugging me and Dad. It was a moment of pure release...a season of miracles in the making. From there, you knew United would win it. Dad sparked up a cigar and within a matter of seconds, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put the ball in the Germans' net to reach the promised land.

The journey home was arduous, but we didn't care a bit. We were there.



Nic English: FA Cup semifinal, 2003, Arsenal vs. Sheffield United

It was my first trip to Old Trafford and I had never visited such an enormous auditorium. Highbury was cramped but cosy in comparison. My overriding memory from the occasion was the wall of Sheffield United fans already there when my father and I walked into the stadium; I’d only been to one away game before (at Chelsea) but this was far more impressive.

At the time, Arsenal were probably the best team in the country but going through a slightly strange patch of form, having effectively blown an eight-point lead atop the Premier League.

The Arsenal fans were loud but nervous and Freddie Ljungberg’s goal was wildly celebrated, but there was a feeling we needed another. The moment of the match, David Seaman’s save from Paul Pescholido’s header, was hugely entertaining to see live; the groans of misery hastily replaced by astonished cries and then silenced nerves when another Blades player came in for the rebound only to sky it.

The Arsenal fans were much more lively after that and the nerves slowly dissipated as United tired.

Arsenal made it through to their third successive FA Cup final, and I was there.



Karl Matchett: UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg, 2007, Barcelona vs. Liverpool

Two seasons earlier, Liverpool had defied the odds to win the 2005 UEFA Champions League. One year previous, Barcelona swept all before them to land the same title in 2006. Now the duo met in battle in the knockout stages, both full of confidence and ability, with the first leg played in the iconic Nou Camp stadium.

The trip up to Barcelona was uneventful if exciting, but as soon as the city limits were reached it was almost as though we'd arrived back home—Red flags hung everywhere, from every building, and in every town plaza.

So much of the pre-game talk had centred around supposed in-fighting in the Liverpool camp, with Craig Bellamy predictably in the thick of things. He and John Arne Riise had had a falling-out of sorts, involving a late-night karaoke session and a golf club.


Walking up to that stadium alone was impressive enough, but being sat in the middle of 80,000 demanding Barca fans, blithely donning Liverpool tops ourselves regardless, at times fluctuated between nerve-wracking and a show of intent; we were here to take over the Nou Camp.

When Liverpool go to play in Europe, they take over their host city, that's how it is. The away fans were miles and miles up in the sky, in a barely visible third tier, while a small pocket of us Reds barely made a dent in amongst the tens of thousands of red-and-blue tops. We made ourselves heard though, all right.

On the pitch the pace was fast. Chances for both sides came and went—but Barcelona looked stronger early on, no mistake. The opening goal really came as no surprise, except the fact that Deco scored with his head. You went there supporting your own team, but no sense in lying; it was mesmeric watching Saviola, Ronaldinho, Messi and Xavi.

But this was Liverpool heading into their European peak, and a second Champions League final in three seasons.

The Reds turned it around on the pitch—and Bellamy scored. And, even better, celebrated with a big old golf club swing. And, even better, set up Riise for a late winning goal.

There are some sights, some sounds, some moments that you don't ever forget, and the whole experience of watching the Nou Camp rapidly empty amongst us, while Kopites remained to take over yet another famous old ground, is high up on that list.

Liverpool beat Barcelona in their own back yard, halfway there to knocking out the holders, and I was there.



Rowanne Westhenry: UEFA Champions League Final, 2012, Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich

Five years ago I secured my seat at the very front of the Shed. I've seen some great games since then, but without doubt the most memorable match I have attended was the Champions League Final in Munich.

Chelsea were facing Bayern Munich in their second ever Champions League Final. It was apparent on arrival at the Allianz Arena that the travelling fans were massively outnumbered. I was doing my best to reassure everyone that it would all be okay, it was fate. The date was 19/05, the same year Chelsea FC was founded, Roberto Di Matteo was in charge and I had a Gianfranco Zola autograph safely tucked in my pocket.

After the bizarre pre-match show was over, the actual game flew by.

I looked at the clock thinking that five minutes had passed to see it was nearly halftime. When it remained 0-0 after an hour, the rising tension among the Blues fans was palpable. When Thomas Muller scored after 82 minutes, the woman behind me burst into tears. Again, I tried to reassure her, it wasn't over, we could still do it.

A few people began making their way out of the stadium after 87 minutes, several of them pausing at the top of the stairs to see if the corner won by Fernando Torres came to anything. When Didier Drogba's bullet header went in, everyone went crazy, and the whistle signalling the end of the 90 minutes was drowned out by the continuing Chelsea celebrations.

Extra time dragged, and I was desperate for it to end until I was reminded of what would follow: penalties.

I hate penalties.

When Juan Mata missed Chelsea's first spot-kick, my belief that the trophy was destined for London wavered for the first time since the comeback against Napoli. I could hardly watch the rest of the shoot out, until Olic's miss leveled the scores. When Schweinsteiger missed as well, and Didier Drogba stepped up to take the final penalty, everything froze.

I pleaded with the football gods and peeked through my clenched fists to see him fire home. A split second of disbelief followed before everything went upside down. Screaming, jumping, hugging random strangers ensued before I collapsed to the floor in shock. It took a few minutes for me to gather myself and continue the celebrations.

Despite getting back to London in time for the parade, and seeing the boys with the big-eared trophy, it wasn't until late in the evening that it actually sunk in: Chelsea were European Champions and I was there.



Sam Tighe: League Cup Final, 2010, Aston Villa vs. Manchester United

Going to Wembley for a cup final is a unique experience.

The trepidation kicks in the night before as you try to go to sleep; you shoot out of bed in the morning and hastily wolf down breakfast of some description.

For me, it was about occupying myself to distract from the jangling nerves inside, and said nerves only intensified when I set foot on Wembley Way. The atmosphere on the half-mile strip of tarmac leading up to the great stadium was like a carnival: scarves, shirts, badges, buttons, balloons and more were being sold in abundance; men, women and children hopping excitedly with their faces painted in team colours.

The chants started by fans even outside the stadium served to lift the hairs from your arms, psychologically preparing you for a day you'll never forget.

As I entered the stadium, the Aston Villa end was awash with claret and blue, peppered with flags and loud in noise. What seemed like the entire Holte End had traveled down and gotten seats together—but for the red seats and the larger pitch, this could have been Villa Park.

It started wonderfully, with James Milner converting a penalty to put us one up. But Michael Owen struck back, then Wayne Rooney headed home from an Antonio Valencia cross to knock the wind from my lungs.

It was a heartbreaking loss, but the day was unbelievable: a true sign of how football can bring people together and lift the spirits.

To this day, I blame Phil Dowd for the loss: He should have sent Nemanja Vidic off for the challenge that led to the early penalty, and I'm pretty sure we'd have beaten 10 men!

We still boo Dowd vociferously to this day at Villa Park. Football fans never forget. Villa should have won the cup that day when I was there.


Mike Cummings: FIFA World Cup Round of 16, 1994, Sweden vs. Saudi Arabia

Memory can be a funny thing, even in the most unforgettable moments. Maybe I'm just being too hard on myself, though. I was only a kid, and I didn't really know what I was seeing. I only knew that I loved it.

It was the summer of 1994 and my family was traveling to Oklahoma to see my grandmother for the Fourth of July. The day before, we happened to be in Dallas, Texas, while the World Cup was in town.

Imagine that.

I was 11 at the time, and my dealings with soccer mainly meant bunch-ball, youth leagues and Nintendo games. Major League Soccer didn't yet exist and the elite European leagues might as well have been taking place on Mars, for all the American attention they received.

But my dad was interested, and of course, so was I. So somehow our whole family of five found tickets to a Round of 16 match between Sweden and Saudi Arabia in the Cotton Bowl, and at 11 years old, I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see, in person, the world's greatest sporting event in my home country.

And I don't remember much about it, to be honest.

I remember that it was uncomfortably hot and humid, as Texas in July usually is, and I remember being amazed that the Saudi Arabian goalkeeper was wearing pants anyway.

I remember that before the final whistle the Americans in the crowd started chanting "U-S-A," presumably because the U.S. national team had qualified for the knockout stage and would be playing Brazil the next day in California.

Soon we were joined by an equally large group chanting "Mexico" back at us, and I remember the call-and-response filtering through the concourses as we left the ground at full-time.

I don't remember any of the goals, though, and I had to search the Internet to find that Sweden won 3-1. I don't remember following Sweden until the semifinals that summer or remarking to myself how cool it was that I had seen a World Cup semifinalist play in person.

But I do remember thinking the Swedes had interesting- (and good-) looking fans and that it was amazing how far they had traveled to see their team.

I don't even remember how much the tickets cost, although it must have been a lot. I only remember that, for all I've forgotten about the match, it was an experience that left an unshakable impression on me.

That is to say, by then it was too late for all the other sports. Soccer was it for me, right then and right there, if it hadn't been already. France '98 helped drive the point home, and by then the world's game was becoming much more accessible to American fans. 

But it was that day at the Cotton Bowl that did the trick for me, even if I can't remember much more about it. The World Cup had come to town, and I was there.



Dan Talintyre: FIFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff Second Leg, 2005, Australia vs. Uruguay

The Australian national team was never the most successful team in the world (and it still isn't today), but the game against Uruguay in 2005 was a moment that I'll never forget. The seats that my Dad and I had weren't great—they were pretty high up in the stands—but there's just something about that night I'll never forget.

Australia came into the game trailing by a goal on aggregate. We'd been knocked out by the South Americans in our attempts to qualify for the World Cup last time, so there was added incentive to make this one count.

And after we scored our first goal of the game—tying it on aggregate—there was a real sense that maybe this was they year.

The game would go to penalty shootout. Which, if you'd have asked me anything in the next 10 minutes, I wouldn't have been able to answer you. I had no concept of time, or what else was happening, who I was with, or what had transpired even that afternoon.

All I could see was a penalty taker and a goalkeeper, and our chance to finally make it through to the greatest tournament in international football.

Mark Schwarzer made two incredible saves that stick out in my mind, simply for the fact that the entire crowd roared and cheered as one. But it was more than a cheer—it was sheer ecstasy.

When John Aloisi netted the winning penalty, I couldn't think. I was stunned. Yelling, jumping, but I couldn't feel my body.

The entire crowd had moved and reacted as one and I felt like I was simply another drop in a mighty ocean. I'd never felt like that before and to be honest, I've never felt like that again in any game I've ever been to.

Across any sport, in any venue, for any moment. This was an experience that I'll never forget, and one that I relive every single time I watch that glorious penalty find the back of the net.

Australia were going to the World Cup in 2006, and I was there.


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