Man U vs. Chelsea in the Champions League Finals!!

Trip Start Jan 12, 2008
Trip End Oct 01, 2008

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I wake up nice and early and head out on the city with one mission: get tickets to the game!  I hit up the Red square and kremlin area asking anyone who sounds or looks British if they have extra tickets while making sure I'm always out of earshot of the police as you aren't allowed to do that apparently and I had been warned by Sveta (short for Svetlana) to have zero interaction with the police.  Anyways, I hit the jackpot with the 6th or 7th group of people I confront.  It is a group of older British guys in town for the game and two of their friends weren't able to make it for this reason or that.  I'm expecting to hear an asking price north of $1,500 and am prepared to pay up to $742 (ok, $1,000) but the guy comes out with a bombshell... face value!!!  He is obviously wealthy and isn't looking to make any money on the sale so I negotiate two dollars less than face value just so I can say that I was the only one in the stadium who actually paid less than face value!  So, I wound up paying less than $130 for a ticket because my $600 ticket had been sold to a higher bidder.  Ahhh, the beauty of it all!

Now that the ticket situation was taken care of (I felt like a lottery winner all day), I head into the Kremlin to check out the impressive complex, its cathedrals and the Armory where the Faberge eggs are housed.  Only problem is that the Armory has closed for the day by the time I get there.  I'll have to return to see the eggs another day.

I hit up Old Arbat Street, which is a pedestrian street famous for souvenir shopping and bars which double as a meeting point for all the English soccer fans in town for the game.  Apparently, you aren't allowed to drink at the stadium during any European competition so the hooligans are getting their fair share in before the game starts.  The chanting from each bar is indistinguishable but its easy to tell which team is being supported by the colors.  One bar is red, another blue, and a few more red before yet another blue one... there are people screaming at each other, drinking until they can't walk straight, and even more people watching the madness of the pre-game unfold.  I meet a few fans from each side and everyone is appalled that I'm not supporting their team, relieved that I'm not supporting the other side, and then appalled again when I open my sweatshirt to reveal an Arsenal jersey!  It is during this speed course in soccer "etiquite" (or lack there of) that I decide it smart to put on a blue shirt under my Arsenal jersey as I'm sitting on the Chelsea side and I'd love to leave the game in one piece!

I get to the game a bit too early (kick-off isn't until about 11pm local time), but this turns out to be a blessing at it starts to pour and my seat is sheltered from the storm.  Walking up to Luzhniki stadium (home of the 1980 Olympic Games)  I can feel the energy a good four hours before kick-off and start to understand the religious aspect of the game as I stroll from the Chelsea fan zone to the Manchester United zone, on either side of the stadium.  I have to say that the Russian police/army/air force/navy/ fire fighters/KGB and basically anyone in uniform did a great job of separating the crowds, keeping them under control by intimidation, and making sure to avoid a repeat of the 1982 disaster during another UEFA match at Luzhniki in which hundreds of people were trampled.

The crowd rolls in and the energy is contagious as each side is chanting well before the opening ceremony begins.  The Manchester United side looks like a sea of red while the Chelsea side is a blue and white checker board. 

The opening ceremony is artistic at best, but gave the Russian hosts a chance to display their creativity and appreciation for the all-English match.  Before I know it, the whistle has blown and Man U is dominating the flow of the game.  Ronaldo, the man everyone loves to hate, is a clear threat down the left side and Chelsea looks flat which is evident by the supporters around me momentarily putting their flags down and looking obviously nervous as chance after chance is squandered by United.  Some 25 minutes through the 1st half and Man U capitalizes on some poor defending with Ronaldo heading home a beautiful cross.  The far side of the stadium erupts while the people around me look like they have just seen a ghost. 

Almost immediately Chelsea turns it on and misses a few chances of their own.  Minutes before the half time whistle, Chelsea equalize after a lucky bounce found the ball at the foot of Frank Lampard who calmly placed the ball in the back of the net.  Just like I had seen with the Irish fans at the 1994 World Cup at Giants Stadium, there were people around me that wound up several rows away from their seat after the 2 minute long celebration that ensued the equalizing goal. 

The second half proves to be the best back-and-football I've ever seen.  As the final whistle blows, I can't believe my luck that I get to see an extra 30 minutes of overtime on the biggest soccer stage in the world for the year.  Everyone is biting their nails with nerves, but excited to see their team take the title.  The overtime flies by with chances on both sides followed by either sighs of relief or gasps of despair.  Just before full time, Didier Drogba (Chelsea's most dangerous player) is sent off for slapping a Man U player in the middle of a scuffle.  The final whistle blows and the Chelsea fans around me are relieved to make it to penalties as they are now playing a man down.  I'm in heaven as I realize that I now get to see a shootout and I'm still probably the only one in the stadium who doesn't really care who comes out on top!!!  I couldn't have asked for a better 120 minutes of regulation and overtime play and can't imagine I will ever attend a sporting event, show, concert, or event of any type that will top this... and the shootout hasn't even started yet!  I was disappointed to see the shootout go to the other side of the stadium, but I was still as happy as a kid in a candy store to be witnessing such an amazing game!

Carlos Tevez starts the shootout with a goal for Man U, followed by Michael Ballack for Chelsea.  Michael Carrick and Juliano Belletti each score their penalty and the stadium seems as though it is about to snap at 2-2.  Next up, Man U star Ronaldo... a sure make. 

As he lined his strike up, you could have heard a pin drop from the other side of the stadium.  I cannot explain the pure elation and raw emotions that erupted around me when he missed!  Chelsea were sure winners when Frank Lampard finished his chance confidently.  The energy around me was indescribable but I felt as though it was my team because it was just contagious!  Owen Hargreaves and Ashley Cole put their chances away and Chelsea had just one more to make after Nani tied it up at 4-4 for Man U.  People around me are hugging and the little boy behind me is crying with joy as his favorite player, John Terry, gets to seal the deal for Chelsea.  Apparently the rain was coming down harder than it looked as sure foot Terry slipped as he struck the ball and missed wide!!!  In a matter of 2 seconds, the Chelsea victory had vanished and everyone around me was dead silent while the other side of the stadium roared with renewed hope!

At around 2am, when Nicolas Anelka missed the 8th kick for Chelsea which sealed the victory for Man U, I could see and feel people around me dying inside.  They had gone from the happiest moment in their lives to utter despair within a matter of a few minutes and a few twists of fate.  I concealed my joy of having just witnessed a game that will undoubtedly be replayed as a classic for many years to come so as to not offend the sorrow-filled fans surrounding me.  The trophy celebration gives the Man U side a good ten minutes without the Chelsea fans drowning them out around me and I hear some of the most organized chanting of undistinguishable words ever!  As I leave the stadium, I try to come to grips with what I just witnessed and I have a hard time imagining my trip getting any better than this...

I hit up Old Arbat Street to revel with the Man U fans for a bit but I'm found out as an imposter a few times.  This doesn't deter the new champions who use it as an opportunity to brag about their recent crown as well as the English Premier League title won a few weeks earlier.  I enjoy the crowd's euphoria and get home at 6 am about as happy as I've ever been despite not having seen a single familiar face in over 6 days!!!
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