In all the talk about the Champions League and the financial boost it will bring, one thing has sometimes been missing. Sheer unbridled excitement at the prospect of playing in Europe’s elite club competition. As we prepare to bring our glorious season to an end, take a moment and drink in that excitement.
Die Meister, Die Besten, Les Grandes Équipes…
Newcastle United have returned. Returned to prominence, returned to form, returned to our true likeness. After 15 years cast out in the wilderness, gnawing at our own limbs like a rabid animal, determined to prevent our own progress, an abject object of mockery to the sporting world, we have been given a new lease of life.
We have been revitalised and nurtured and strengthened and returned to our former path. Our proper place. Our legitimate position. Newcastle United are back where we belong. The UEFA Champions League.
The rise up the Premier League has been meteoric. The journey to Wembley was memorable. But Monday’s 0-0 draw against Leicester and the confirmation of a place at Europe’s top table was something altogether different. The Champions League is alternative gravy.
Many will remember 20 years ago, Shearer in Milan, or ’97 and Tino’s hat-trick, but the competition has only grown in prestige and glamour since then. Whether it’s your first time on this ride or your third, we should all be very fucking excited.
What makes achieving a place in the Champions League so special? Of course, a large portion of the joy of qualifying is the warm, boastful brag of being able to categorically say that our team is undeniably and irrefutably one of the four best in England. That is, in itself, a sweet and succulent cherry.
It is also tantalising to think of upcoming journeys abroad – trips to foreign lands and pastures new. A chance to test ourselves against teams and players who, up until now, we only recognise as characters, avatars, or icons on a screen. No longer will Playstation games and crap BT Sport punditry be our only insight into the great and the good of Europe – soon, we will be able to judge these demigods for ourselves, as they roll into our very backyard and show us what they’ve got. For reals.
However, the joy of taking our rightful place among Europe’s elite brings a separate feeling – something even more enigmatic and spine-tingling than the prospect of the Real Madrid team bus rolling over the Redheugh Bridge. The Champions League, for all it may position itself as a self-perpetuating closed shop intent on further feathering the nests of some of the most financially bloated beings in human history, still has an indescribable something – call it je ne said quoi, das gewisse etwas, non può essere definito – something separating it from any other sporting tournament in the world.
It is the stage upon which every footballer wishes to perform, more than any other. It is a theatre, where the highest of high stakes are played for and lost, where dreams are dashed and where legends are born. It is flamboyant, it is dangerous, it is brutal, it is regal. When the sun sets, and the lights go on, and the fans assemble, and the teams walk out, and the music plays – from Moscow to Munich to Milan – it is, quite simply, magic.
Ce sont les meilleures équipes
Es sind die allerbesten Mannschaften
The main event
In 1992, British composer Tony Britten was approached by UEFA to write a song. After several decades during which the reputation of association football had drifted further and further into the gutter – rife with hooliganism and gang violence – the iconic Italia ’90 (perhaps the most epochal sporting tournament in history) had given birth to a new vision of soccer. A romantic vision. A vision of a game that wasn’t just about blood and thunder and booze and strength, but a game that could be poignant. A game that could be emotional, meaningful, passionate and cathartic. A game that truly was, in every sense of the word, beautiful.
Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun Dorma will forever raise hairs on the arms of the most brutish and barbarous of football fans, and UEFA were quick to capitalise on this cultural shift in the tone of fandom. The re-birth and re-branding of the European Cup was encapsulated by Britten’s anthem (combining French, German, and English lyrics, unapologetically heavily inspired by Handel’s Zadok the Priest), bringing a new sense of romance and magisterial mystery to the competition.
Ils sont les meilleurs
Sie sind die Besten
These are the champions
Less than a decade later, when Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils lifted the trophy in 1999, Clive Tyldesley epitomised the tournament’s reverence with typical linguistic acumen. Waiting until the precise moment the cup was held aloft, the ITV commentator perfectly summed up the way in which the Champions League transcends sport, takes its participants beyond the physical and into the ethereal, and turns men into gods, by memorably declaring, ‘Manchester United have reached the Promised Land’.
And that, dear friends, is where we’re heading now. You, and me and Sean Longstaff. The music will play. The stars will come out. We will return to that stage built with teams such as ours in mind. Zidane and Figo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Maldini and Nesta, Messi and Iniesta – our boys will soon tread in the footsteps of these immortals, and dance where they danced.
Not as spectators, or shadows, or extras in the crowd, but as leading lights, purposeful protagonists. You can rest assured that Eddie will not be taking his Hotrods into this kingdom with an attitude any different to that with which we approached this season’s Premier League. Not to be popular, but to compete.
And with a few additions in the summer, who knows? We may even surprise a few people. Yes, readying the squad for the extra fixtures, the long journeys, and the calibre of opponents will be a task ten times more difficult than transforming a side certain for relegation into the third-best in the country; however, we cannot forget that we are there on merit. We deserve our place at une grande réunion, eine grosse sportliche Veranstaltung. The main event.
And although no trophy has (yet) been lifted by a black and white shirt, we should make no mistake that this group of players are Champions in their own right. From now until forever, the uttering of their names on Tyneside – Burn, Botman, Miggy, and Bruno – will bring a knowing smile, a respectful nod, and a raise of the glass. They are our legends, our heroes. They have brought us back from the dead and returned us to our rightful place, among equals. They truly are Die Meister. Die Besten. Les grandes équipes.
The Champions (”e-de-de-de-daaaaaaah)