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A late accreditation approval for Extratime.ie from UEFA had me Berlin bound for the 2015 Champions League Final. Not a bad way to spend a few days, even if it did mean missing the Ireland v England friendly game in the Aviva Stadium (but it turned out I didn’t miss much there after all).
Without looking to break the bank at Extratime and to travel in time for the pre-match activities in Berlin’s Olympic stadium, the best option for me was to fly into Hamburg on Friday morning and then take the high speed train to the German capital.
When they say high speed, they mean it. The train tipped a top speed of 198kph at one stage. We sped through a countryside that included fields of solar panels and forests of wind turbines, covering the 286km in less than two hours.
I later made my way to pick up my media accreditation on Jesse Owens Allee and walked into the Olympic Stadium through the Marathon gate in time to see the Bianconeri train.
Walking into the stadium bowl from ground level, the lower tier drops down to the pitch level far below. High above the upper tier overhead, the roof sweeps around the stadium, the venue for the 1936 Olympics and the 2006 World Cup Final (following a €242m refurbishment). The fabric clad roof is broken only by the corridor framed by the Marathontor and Glockenturm on the western facade giving the 75,000 capacity stadium its superb signature look.
At the opposite end to the open stadium, the seats were already decked out with the Barcelona motto – Mes que un club. It did look strange that Juve’s end was empty. However walking through that section I could see that each seat had a ‘choreography guide’ taped to it giving instructions for their fan display e.g. “wear the bib you find on your seat throughout the entire match”
I left behind the photographers, stewards, police, UEFA officials, Gianlucca Vialli (who looked like he could still line out for Juve) and a lot of sponsor hanger-ons all who were watching the Juventus stars have their pre-match run. In the media centre, the Barcelona press-conference was about to begin. The media area was located in the indoor warm up area of the stadium with carpet placed over the running track, with the indoor long jump pit visible at the end of the lanes.
Gerard Piqué and Neymar sat at the podium at the top of the press area – which had around 200 seats set out for the world’s media – and their words simultaneously were translated when required into Spanish, Italian, English, German and French by the staff sitting in the translation booths along the side wall.
Following the players, in came their manager Luis Enrique and when he concluded I climbed the marathon stairs back to ground floor for dinner – this isn’t a reference to my lack of fitness but the fact that is what the stairs adjacent to the press area is labelled in the stadium!
Amongst the massive temporary facilities erected in the wide area surrounding the stadium was the staff canteen and it was time for my Champions League dinner. With a UEFA meal voucher in hand I had my choice of hot dinners, salad and soft drinks – the beer was only unlocked after the final whistle on Saturday evening.
Filled with free food, I headed for the upper tier and into the extended press box. For the numbers of press that were covering the game, the media tribune took up probably half of the upper tier with temporary desks added with power, internet connection and TV monitors.
Extratime’s position was in the last row of the upper tier in line with the edge of one of the penalty areas with another whole block further towards one goal. In Lisbon for last year’s final, Extratime’s seat seemed to be the furthest from the centre circle so maybe we are moving up in the world! Some of the South American TV companies were doing live slots for the viewers back home – no doubt much discussion about Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
The sun had dropped between the gap in the stands by this stage and the Berlin temperature had fallen to a very pleasant 20 degrees or so after a high of 30 earlier in the day. It seemed to be a good position to write up the press conference discussion and to follow the action in the League of Ireland on Extratime. Usually I’m on the other end of the updates so it was great to keep up with what was going on back home.
Saturday morning was spent taking in some of the sights of Berlin. With the game in mind, I went to the Champions Festival surrounding the Brandenburg Gate. Both sets of fans mixed amongst the sponsor displays. I’m a bit unsure what Gazprom were giving away though. Marco van Basten was giving away winners medals to a five a side team who won on the Oriel Park style playing surface temporarily laid in the fan zone.
After a walk down Bernauer Strasse to see the Berlin Wall memorial, I also visited the Tränenpalast, the Palace of Tears, at the Friedrichstasse Station where East Germans said goodbye to visitors going back to West Germany. The Olympic Stadium was going to bring tears for some losing supporters, and indeed superstar players, later that day, and it was time for me to get to the Final venue.
There had been lots of talk about a trident of attacking players for Barca and that both teams were going for a treble. Things happens in threes they say and when I got to my seat in the media tribune, it turned out UEFA had placed three Irish journalists beside each other.
We watched the sun set spectacularly during the opening ceremony, a ceremony I’d seen twice already having watched the rehearsals from my seat the previous evening. That Champions League theme tune sung by a soprano never gets boring though.
As for the game itself, well you all will have watched the match and read the reports (maybe even my own here) but the game flew by in the blink of an eye. From a selfless point of view, I’d have liked a late Juve equaliser. We obviously like extratime round these parts for the free advertisement but I just wanted another 30 minutes of action.
The game was incident packed from the off with Barcelona breaking the deadlock within four minutes. The speed of Barca on the break was breath taking and a number of Messi’s runs drew audible gasps from the crowd including the press, myself included. The possession stats (61%) and passing stats (495 complete for Barca to Juve’s 281) showed who bossed the game but Juventus had their moments.
When la Vecchia Signora equalized both sets of fans raised their game to try and lift their team with the supporters producing this incredible competing wall of noise. Suarez vaulted the advertising hoardings to celebrate in front of the Barca fans when he made it 2-1. Juve pressed to find an equaliser to take it to extratime.
When the late goal came, it fell to Barcelona with Neymar scoring deep in injury to confirm his Catalan club as Champions of Europe. My view of the trophy presentation was from high up behind the celebrating players and, with the booming Champions League theme blasting out, I certainly felt it a privilege to see the trophy being lifted as the confetti and tickertape rained out below.
Afterwards I got to hear both managers’ thoughts on the game. Massimiliano Allegri was dignified in his praise of the winning side and proud of his players who brought the club to the brink of a treble of their own. When he rose to leave, the Italian journalists clapped him out.
Andres Iniesta was bizarrely handed his man of the match trophy, not on the pitch side podium, but in front of the press. He spoke about the win and laughed off the question from the Georgian journalist who asked could he get Xavi to stay on with Barca so that he could see him play in Tbilisi in August’s Super Cup final against Sevilla.
Finally, Luis Enrique came in to discuss his team’s historic win and to bat away much discussion about his future at the club. If I didn’t have his translated words in my ears, I would almost have thought he was the losing manager at times but this was a man who had danced onto the pitch after Neymar’s late goal.
I was thankful of the fact that Berlin’s transport system runs 24 hours at the weekend as it was close on 2am by the time I left the venue taking one last photo of the incredible stadium. I wasn’t the only Irishman still there, as Italian football fan Deputy Mick Wallace TD was making his way out to take a night train back into the city centre. I had a handful of match programmes for those who requested them safely tucked away and it was time to head home (via a flight from Poznan!) Bye bye Berlin’s Olympiastadion, you were a beauty.