The improbable kings of Europe

By Fabian Mayer

The Champions League final is the most watched annual sporting event in the world and the most important soccer game of the year. The match took place on May 19 and is the culmination of a competition unlike any familiar to most North Americans.

The Champions League is a tournament of the top teams in the various domestic leagues of Europe. For example, the top-four teams from the premiership — the English soccer league — automatically qualify for next year’s Champions League.

The origins of the tournament date back to 1955. Back then it was called the European Champion Clubs’ Cup and the first five were won by Real Madrid, a record for the most titles that still stands today. The current format, adopted in 1992, includes a round-robin with 32 teams in groups of four followed by three two-game series decided by aggregate scoring.

The final is a single game, winner-take-all format and this year’s match was between Chelsea FC and FC Bayern Munich. The clubs from London and Munich were arguably underdogs in the semifinals, playing Spanish giants FC Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. Both clubs managed extremely improbable wins in games that went right down to the final whistle. In fact, the Bayern versus Madrid game went past the final whistle and into a penalty shootout. Munich entered the final as the favourite and embraced their role early in the match.

Bayern hardly allowed Chelsea into their third of the pitch in the opening half, but with some luck and solid goaltending from Petr Cech, the teams went into their locker rooms with the score 0-0. The second half was similar with many corners and attempts for Bayern reaching double digits. For a while it looked as though the teams would head into extra time, deadlocked without either goalie having to fish the ball from their net. However, there was high drama in the final 10 minutes of regular time. In minute 83, Bayern’s Thomas Muller was able to head in a cross from Tony Kroos that slipped pass the Chelsea goalie. It seemed as though the relentless pressure imposed on Chelsea was finally too much and the Champions League trophy was headed to Bavaria this year.

Chelsea striker and Ivory Coast international Didier Drogba had other plans. With just two minutes left to play, Drogba was able to connect on a corner and power a header past Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer. Drogba sent the game to extra time which solved nothing, leading to a penalty shootout, an occasion dreaded by players and coaches alike. Often described as a lottery, it is still undoubtedly one of the most exciting spectacles in sport. With millions around the world glued to their TV screens, Bayern Munich grabbed the lead early only to see it snatched away by a Cech save and an unfortunate Bayern shot off the post. The man that tied the game then had a chance to win the biggest club title in the world for his team. He converted effortlessly sliding the ball into the bottom corner of the net, giving Chelsea their first Champions League title. Chelsea would become the fifth English side to ever win a Champions League trophy.

Any sports fan would have delighted in such a dramatic and captivating final, and Canadians would be well-served to observe the final as part of the year’s sporting canon. Soccer enjoys more participants in Canada than any other sport, yet, when it comes to our collective sports attention, it is hockey and football that dominate. With the expansion of Major League Soccer into Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, soccer is poised to expand its influence over Canadian audiences. However, it is events like the Champions League final that truly display the finest players on the biggest stage and is an event that should not be missed.

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