Final thoughts: Champions League, Cardiff 2017

“I never said I didn’t like the Champions League.”

CARDIFF, Wales; August 2014: Fans of Real Madrid and Spanish rivals Sevilla bring the colour and noise of Spain’s La Liga to the Welsh capital.

Along with thousands of Spanish football fans, in the city for the revamped UEFA Super Cup, are media from across the world and Cardiff feels as if it is the centre of attention.

On the pitch, at the Cardiff City Stadium, hometown hero Gareth Bale, was outshone by a brace from Real’s favourite hero Ronaldo with the only goals of the game. But three months earlier it was the Welshman who’d put Ronaldo in the shade as his extra-time goal in the Champions League Final in Lisbon essentially sealed a 10th European Cup – “La Decima” – for Spain’s royal club.

With it came a place in the Super Cup, on the move from its usual home in Monaco, to tour Europe starting in Cardiff. The midweek Super Cup, we’re told, showed Cardiff and the Football Association of Wales (FAW) could stage a major UEFA final and reminded Cardiff, in full technicolor and super surround sound, the vibrancy visiting European fans bring with them.

At the end of the season the news was out that the Millennium Stadium would host the 2017 final. There was no time for Cardiff City to regain their Premier League place and win the English title (or at least finish in the top four). But Cardiff could still be represented in the final with Gareth Bale and Real Madrid, defending champions by the time this past season’s Champions League group stages began in September.

All through the Champions League I’d cheered for Real, not a team I’d feel any natural affinity with, to reach the Cardiff final. I kept fingers crossed for misfortune to strike English clubs, especially in those tense moments when familiar visitors like Manchester City or Leicester looked as if they could have been on their way here, and hoped Real could meet a club of equal standing in the showpiece final.

On the field it almost all fell perfectly in place only an injury that threatened to sideline Bale jeopardised the fairytale.

An information board for fans pictured on Sunday

But off the field the optimism that greeted the arrival of the ‘biggest single sporting event of 2017’ was giving way to the rampant corporatism of a major UEFA final.

My previous post on the way the Champions League Final had taken over Cardiff, and my anger at what was best described in the comments as “how global capital demands exclusive use and presentation of urban space”, concentrated on the unnecessary negatives that came with the event.

It seems to have struck a chord, in two days it became the most read post on my blog, and generated lots of positive and some less favourable reaction. It was also only my second post of the year but put my total number of site visitors back on course to exceed last year’s total.

Fortunately what looked like being the Champions League’s worst excess, the potential clearance of the homeless who sleep in Cardiff city centre’s shop doorways, didn’t appear to have been put into action.

South Wales Police’s assistant chief constable took to social media, Donald Trump style, to denounce a report, which surfaced after my original post, as “fake news”. His complaint was undermined by a statement his force had given Wales Online, who broke the story and rightly gave it significant prominence 48 hours before the final. The statement confirmed officers could use anti-social behaviour powers to require people to move on – or face arrest and possible imprisonment.

But in the city centre on Friday and Saturday evening there were still many homeless people on the street and I couldn’t see that they were under any threat from the police.

It wasn’t only fans of Juve and Real who came to Cardiff

I stand by my previous post but also think while I’ve made justified criticism of the event, now the final has passed, there were also elements that deserved praise.

The women’s final, played where our story began at the Cardiff City Stadium, was staged in the same city alongside the men’s final for the first time. More than 22,000, the second biggest crowd ever for the women’s final, saw Olympique Lyonnais beat Paris Saint-Germain on penalties on Thursday.

The Wales Millennium Centre hosted a free exhibition showcasing the history of the European Cup and Champions League.

Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs and Luis Figo played on the floating pitch in Cardiff Bay where the Welsh Refugee Cup final was played a few hours later.

The floating pitch

The Champions Festival in the Oval Basin was a really enjoyable event and ran with little fuss despite the obvious need for security measures.

Unlike previous free events in Cardiff there were no little Hitlers dispatched from the council to prevent visitors bringing in their own alcohol because the beer sold, at double the price, from the official outlets is some how much more health and safety compliant.

The Sainsbury’s next to the festival, and other nearby shops, had plenty of customers and a small bottle of white rum, mixed with the plentiful supply of free Pepsi Max from the Champions League sponsors in the village, helped me and my brother around what was essentially a trade show. Big energy bad guys Gazprom were there, with nice “Haribo style” sweets on their stand, and a last chance to win tickets to the final. I asked if the company is owned by the Russian Mafia, “they are owned by Russians” was the reply.

The FAW, who once had Newport comedy rappers the GLC perform before a match, have got better at booking. Among the groups performing on the stage, over four days from Thursday to Sunday, were Cardiff’s finest Afrofunk/Hip Hop group Afro Cluster and some local ska bands.

John Toshack lifts a European trophy with Liverpool

Unfortunately my visit to the village coincided with DJ Steve Aoki standing behind the decks, and some times over the decks, while a pre-recorded EDM mix played.

I think the event, where Aiko was shouting out, “Put your hands in the fucking air, are you ready to fucking party?”, was intended as family entertainment. In fairness lots of people seemed to be enjoying themselves and had their camera phones pointed towards the stage.

“He’s more famous than Calvin Harris,” was the reply from some lads, who looked about 18, when I asked them if the DJ was famous.

Moving back to the city centre there was a Colombian TV crew filming outside the castle and a crowd assembled outside its gates that looked as if they were also expecting someone more famous than Calvin Harris. The only faces I recognised were two mid ranking Welsh Government ministers – until FIFA boss Gianni Infantino strode down the drawbridge. I’m happy to say the most powerful man in world football was happy to stop for selfies with the mostly Italian fans.

ESPN set up on the lawn infront of Cardiff City Hall

As well as Italian and Spanish fans there also seemed to be many from South America and I’d earlier chatted with a Frankfurt fan (he never expected them to feature) who’d decided at Christmas to travel from Germany for the final (his friends had been hoping to see their team, possibly Bayern Munich in Cardiff). I think there were four of them and they were reasonably satisfied with the £300 they’d paid for an Airbnb but noticed prices had increased.

For officialdom it seems the Champions League is all about economic impact, but I’m sceptical of that and think the event should be enjoyed for what it is – a great sporting occasion. Cardiff council should have made a killing from road closure fees alone, perhaps they were waived, and that could seem to be a sensible way to support the staging of an event, although I can’t help but wonder if more direct public subsidy was offered. It should be possible to find out.

Craig Bellamy is another Cardiffian to have made an impact in the Champions League

Once the referee blew his whistle for kick-off on Saturday evening fans could concentrate on the game but sadly that’s the bit I missed.

A pre-arranged work committment meant just half an hour before kick-off I was sitting down to listen to US presidential also-ran Bernie Sanders speak at the Hay Festival (more on that in a later post). I was torn about whether to attend Senator Sanders’ talk or stay in Cardiff for the final. As soon as Sanders stopped speaking I was in the car but poor radio reception meant I was ignorant of the score until I approached Merthyr Tydfil and learned, from Radio 5 Live on Radio Wales, that Real were 3-1 up.

By the time I’d reached the outskirts of Cardiff I was able to pick up the radio once more and Radio Cymru confirmed that Bale had indeed managed to make a 13 minute cameo to salvage something of the hometown final. But as Real added another goal I realised this would be one European Cup final that wouldn’t feature the usual extra time and penalties, which I’d hoped to reach a city centre pub for and salvage my own hometown final dreams.

I did make it to town, which as on Friday night, didn’t appear as busy as a typical busy Saturday but that didn’t seem to bother the Real fans and even the Juve fans were still singing and dancing.

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