The World Cup final can't really compare. It may be a marvellous international carnival, a wonderful spectacle which carries the game to all corners of the globe, and, in principle, a much better symbol of sporting purity. But as a serious football occasion it can't match the annual showdown to the competition devised by a French journalist, Gabriel Hanot of L'Equipe, 45 years ago.
In the European Cup, the criterion is not nationality but quality. Manchester United versus Bayern Munich has been widely discussed in terms of ancient national rivalries, but that is not the point of the exercise. Tomorrow, Barcelona's Nou Camp will be graced by players not just from England and Germany but from Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, Tobago, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Ghana, Bosnia- Herzogovina and Iran (sadly, the Frenchman and the Brazilian are ruled out by injury). This is a competition in which the world's greatest players can reach the summit, even though their passports might disqualify them from the hope of World Cup glory. Eusebio of Portugal, Best of Northern Ireland, Robertson of Scotland, and Savicevic and Mijatovic of Yugoslavia would attest to that.
Even more strongly, the European Cup is a competition between established teams, groups of players who have worked together for months and often (as is the case with the nucleus of Alex Ferguson's team) years to achieve a rare standard of collective excellence. They bring with them all sorts and levels of internal politics, positive and negative, creating sub-plots which can only enrich the sense of occasion.
Which World Cup final, for example, has ever contained a narrative so full of pathos as Matt Busby's 10-year battle to rebuild United from the wreckage of the Munich air crash, a mission in which the personal and the professional became inextricably combined? Or so tortuous and emotionally exhausting as the Old Trafford club's 30-year struggle to regain those heights? Grandeur and tragedy, courage and cowardice, honour and corruption - the emotions of the European Cup are always writ large.
It was like that long before Uefa started playing anthems and letting off fireworks to please its new commercial "partners". The competition's special ambiance was established when Real Madrid won the first five finals, beating Stade de Reims twice, Fiorentina, Milan and Eintracht Frankfurt. Rather than sending everybody outside Madrid to sleep, it awakened Europe's football fans to the idea that here was the right stage on which to display and define an absolutely pre-eminent force in the game. No one now looks back on that era with anything other than a sense of wonder.
For those of us who were still getting used to the feel of long trousers in 1960, the BBC's live transmission of that year's final proved to be a pivotal moment in the appreciation of the game. And thanks to the existence of videotape, it is possible to prove that the 135,000 who filled Hampden Park that evening felt exactly the same. Naturally, there wasn't much partisan singing or chanting. But the excited chatter, admiring gasps and spontaneous applause that greeted the miracles of imagination and ball control performed by Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Francisco Gento are the sound of eyes being opened.
Interestingly, the video evidence also shows that the Glaswegian fans began the evening by giving their support to the German side. This may have been only 15 years after the end of the Second World War, but deeper ethnic allegiances appeared to sway the crowd against the Latins who mostly made up the Madrid team, and who went behind after 19 minutes. As the match progressed, however, the awe engendered by Real's astonishing skills and audacious style broke down any resistance. By the time the English referee's whistle called time on Real's 7-3 triumph, the crowd was as thoroughly converted as the audience at a Billy Graham crusade. And so, sitting at home watching the game in black and white, were countless others.
Don Alfredo set the tone for this team of aristocrats. Not only did the great Argentinian play in all five finals (as did Gento) between 1956 and 1960, but he scored in every one of them as well - a goal a year until the meeting with Eintracht, when he notched three and still found himself outgunned by Puskas, his partner in attack.
Di Stefano's hegemony was ended by the Benfica of Eusebio and Coluna, who sustained the festive atmosphere by beating Barcelona 3-2 in the 1961 final and thrashing the ageing Real Madrid 5-3 the following year. The Lisbon club's hold on the trophy was loosened in 1962 by the Milan of Jose Altafini and Gianni Rivera, heralding a brief era of Italian domination - although it was Internazionale, schooled in the black art of the catenaccio defence by Helenio Herrera, who beat Real Madrid in 1964 and Benfica in 1965.
The Madrid club briefly returned to the heights in 1966, beating Partizan Belgrade, the first finalists from behind the Iron Curtain, before Celtic beat Inter in 1967 to become the first British winners, thanks to goals from Tommy Gemmell and Steve Chalmers in Lisbon's Estadio Nacional. On 29 May 1968, in front of a full house of 100,000 at Wembley, two goals from Bobby Charlton and one apiece from Brian Kidd and George Best brought immortality to Matt Busby's last great Manchester United team as they demolished Benfica in the final, having removed Real Madrid in the semi.
Milan eliminated United in the semi-final the following year, beating Ajax Amsterdam 4-1 in the final with a hat-trick from Pierino Prati. But the Dutch had arrived, and victory for Feyenoord in 1970 was followed by three consecutive wins for Johann Cruyff's Ajax, the apostles of Total Football.
The sense of dynasties succeeding each other was emphasised when Bayern Munich's 1974-75-76 hat-trick was followed by four wins for the Liverpool of Bob Paisley (1977, 1978, 1981) and Joe Fagan (1984), sandwiching two victories by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest (1979-80) and one each for Aston Villa (1982) and Hamburg (1983). The terrible events attending Liverpool's fifth appearance in the final, at the Heysel stadium in Brussels on 29 May 1985, brought down the curtain on an era in which English clubs had held their own with the Continent's best.
In the years since the Heysel tragedy there have been isolated wins for Steaua Bucharest, Porto, PSV Eindhoven, Red Star Belgrade, Barcelona and Marseilles, whose 1-0 "victory" over Milan in 1993 was taken away several years later as a result of a match-fixing inquiry which landed their president, Bernard Tapie, in gaol. Curiously, this shabby affair only served to underline the tournament's significance.
The Dutch trio of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard brought glory back to Milan in 1989 and 1990, but none of the three was still around in 1994, when the club beat the Cruyff-coached Barcelona of Romario and Stoichkov in Athens in what may have been the most outstanding final since that 7-3 in Glasgow in 1960. Barcelona, the firmest of favourites, were shattered by four brilliant goals - two in the first half from Daniele Massaro, one apiece in the second period from Dejan Savicevic and Marcel Desailly - and a display of implacable resolution from a team missing both its first-choice central defenders.
But Milan could not raise themselves again a year later, conceding victory to a young Ajax side - Seedorf, Davids, Overmars, Litmanen, the De Boer brothers - which, in turn, went down on penalties to Marcello Lippi's Juventus in 1996. But then, in successive years, Lippi's own hopes of creating a dynasty in Turin crumbled before Ottmar Hitzfeld's unfancied Borussia Dortmund and Jupp Heynkes' glittering but brittle Real Madrid.
This year, thanks to the changed criteria for qualification, a cynic might say that the Champions' League has produced an Also-Rans' Cup, since both finalists, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, entered the competition by virtue of finishing as runners-up (to Arsenal and Kaiserslautern, respectively) in their domestic leagues in 1997-98. While this may disappoint purists and traditionalists, who relished the simplicity of a contest between national champions, it is the harbinger of an even more open competition next year, when the competition expands to become a European Super League in all but name.
What the presence of United and Bayern in the final suggests is that whereas a team who win their national championship may find it difficult to sustain the effort and the quality into a second season, the runners- up still have the sort of hunger necessary for success. In the case of the English and German clubs, both of whom are shooting for a treble, the hunger has driven them to unprecedented heights. From all viewpoints, tomorrow night's meeting has the makings of a feast.
EUROPEAN CUP FINALS: ROLL OF HONOUR
Real Madrid 4 Reims 3
Real Madrid 2 Fiorentina 0
Real Madrid 3 Milan 2 (aet)
Real Madrid 2 Reims 0
R Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3
Benfica 3 Barcelona 2
Benfica 5 Real Madrid 3
Milan 2 Benfica 1
Internazionale 3 Real Madrid 1
Internazionale 1 Benfica 0
R Madrid 2 Partizan Belgrade 1
Celtic 2 (Gemmell, Chalmers) Internazionale 1 (Mazzola)
Benfica 1 (Graca) Manchester United 4 (Charlton 2, Best, Kidd) (aet)
Milan 4 Ajax 1
Feyenoord 2 (Israel, Kindvall) Celtic 1 (Gemmell) (aet)
Ajax 2 Panathinaikos 0
Ajax 2 Internazionale 0
Ajax 1 Juventus 0
B Munich 1 Atletico Madrid 1
B Munich 4 Atletico Madrid 0
Bayern Munich 2 (Roth, Muller) Leeds 0
Bayern Munich 1 St Etienne 0
Borussia Monchengladbach 1 (Simonsen) Liverpool 3 (McDermott, Smith, Neal pen)
Bruges 0 Liverpool 1 (Dalglish)
Malmo 0 Nottingham Forest 1 (Francis)
Hamburg 0 Nottingham Forest 1 (Robertson)
Liverpool 1 (Kennedy)
Real Madrid 0
Aston Villa 1 (Withe)
Bayern Munich 0
Hamburg 1 Juventus 0
Liverpool 1 (Neal) Roma 1 (Pruzzo) (aet: Liverpool won 4-2 on pens)
Juventus 1 (Platini pen) Liverpool 0
Steaua Bucharest 0 Barcelona 0 (aet: Steaua won 2-0 on pens)
Porto 2 Bayern Munich 1
PSV Eindhoven 0 Benfica 0 (aet: PSV won 6-5 on pens)
Milan 4 Steaua Bucharest 0
Milan 1 Benfica 0
Red Star Belgrade 0 Marseilles 0 (aet: Red Star won 5-3 on pens)
Barcelona 1 Sampdoria 0 (aet)
Marseilles* 1 Milan 0
(*subsequently stripped of title)
Milan 4 Barcelona 0
Ajax 1 Milan 0
Juventus 1 Ajax 1 (aet: Juventus won 4-2 on pens)
Borussia Dortmund 3 Juventus 1
Real Madrid 1 Juventus 0
Italy (21: 9 wins, 12 defeats); Spain (15: 8, 7); England (10: 8, 2); Germany (10: 5, 5); Netherlands (8: 6, 2); Portugal (8: 3, 5); France (5: 1, 4); Scotland (2: 1, 1); Romania (2: 1, 1); Yugoslavia (2-1, 1); Greece (1: 1 defeat); Belgium (1: 1 defeat); Sweden (1: 1 defeat).Reuse content