The floor of Charles de Gaulle airport is not a comfortable place to sleep. There were no seats left to slump in at 2am on May 18 2006, and no luggage to rest a head on either, for the slow but steady stream of Arsenal fans trickling into the departure hall.
Any night flights back to England had long since taken wing and it would be hours before the check-in desks reopened. Where else was there to go, though, for supporters who had come to Paris for the Champions League final without booking a hotel room?
Travelling to follow your team is an expensive business. With even the budget airlines charging close to £600 for return flights from London’s least accessible airports, savings had to be made. There were many here who had told themselves that they could enjoy a night in the city regardless of the game’s outcome, pushing through from post-game pint to coffee and croissant.
But that was before they knew how events would unfold. When you are shaken awake from a beautiful dream, it is natural to want to go straight back to sleep.
It had been the most improbable of journeys. Arsenal had not conceded a Champions League goal since they went to Ajax in the second round of the group stage. Ten consecutive clean sheets — a record for Uefa’s club competitions — achieved despite starting the last six games without a recognised left-back.
Their opponents in the final were Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard’s team had easily won La Liga, finishing 12 points clear of Madrid. They had already eliminated Mourinho’s Chelsea, as well as Benfica and Milan, in the knockout rounds. A front two of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o had combined for 12 goals and eight assists in the tournament so far.
Arsenal were at least safe in the knowledge that they would return to the Champions League the following season. For months, it had seemed that their only path to qualifying would be to win the whole thing. They entered the final week of the Premier League campaign knowing that even three victories in six days would not be enough to crack the top four unless Tottenham slipped up.
In the end, of course, Spurs did exactly that. Their defeat to West Ham was a story all of its own, with a number of players coming down sick on the morning of the game. No cause was ever proven, despite extensive club investigations that included taking stool samples from players, but Arsenal fans were only too happy to embrace the legend of a bad lasagne, and turn it into a terrace chant.
On they went, to Paris. Arsenal’s starting XI for the final looked more robust than it had all season. The patchwork defence that had carried them this far was gone, with Ashley Cole returning at left-back and a renewed Sol Campbell reclaiming his place at centre-half.
Might it have been the loss of familiarity in that group, though, that led Arsenal to disaster in the 18th minute? Kolo Touré and Campbell both stepped forward to confront the run of Ronaldinho, allowing Eto’o space to run in behind. The Brazilian played a simple ball through to his team-mate, who was brought down crudely by Jens Lehmann on the edge of the box.
If referee Terje Hauge had not been so quick to whistle, advantage could have been played and a goal awarded — Ludovic Giuly rolling the ball into an unguarded net. In that circumstance, a yellow card for Lehmann might have sufficed. Instead, with a free-kick awarded on the edge of the box, it had to be red.
The implications of that decision went beyond a single game. Lehmann coming off was one thing, but now another player would have to make way for his replacement, Manuel Almunia. Arsene Wenger chose Robert Pires. A decade later, the winger would still recall that moment as the bleakest of his entire career. “It was a nightmare. I remember it like yesterday,” he told L’Equipe. “You know a player has to come off, but I never thought it would be me.”
Pires refused to even look at Wenger as they passed on the touchline, or to commiserate with him at full-time. Arsenal had hoped to persuade him to sign a one-year contract extension. Instead, he agreed to join Villarreal the next day.
The players who remained on the pitch were defiant. Thierry Henry had missed a golden chance to put Arsenal ahead in the second minute, freeing himself from Rafael Marquéz’s marking with a sumptuous touch but failing to beat Victor Valdés from six yards. Even with ten men, though, they still found a way to get their noses in front before the break.
If Hauge had seen things clearly in the 37th minute, then Arsenal could have been down to nine men. The already-booked Eboué took a scandalous dive as he moved past Carles Puyol just outside the Barcelona box, and was rewarded with a free-kick. Henry’s delivery found the head of Campbell, who thumped it into the corner of the net.
Arsenal’s impossible dream had never felt so vividly real. They made it through half-time and survived the first wave of frantic Barcelona response. As the second period progressed, their ten men began to carve out chances for a second goal that might have sealed the win. Freddie Ljungberg stole the ball from Oleguer and sprinted through on goal but could not find the angle to beat Valdés at his near post. Alexander Hleb released Henry for another one-on-one but, for the second time in the game, Arsenal’s captain fired too close to the keeper.
And then, the bucket of cold water. Barcelona scored twice in four minutes to turn the game on its head, Eto’o and Juliano Belletti making good on brilliant assists by the substitute Henrik Larsson.
Somewhere in-between, the skies opened over the Stade de France to leave Arsenal both literally and figuratively drenched.
Two days after the Champions League final, Henry signed a new four-year contract. He confessed that he had thought about leaving, but said that Arsenal’s performance in the Champions League final had reassured him of the team’s potential to rise again. “I’ve never played in Spain and I never will,” he said. “This is my last contract.” Wenger struck a similarly optimistic note. “I had two aims at the start of the week: to win the European Cup and then to make Thierry stay,” said Wenger. “I only managed one of those but, for the future of the club, that’s certainly the best one.”
A year later, though, Henry was gone, joining Barcelona at the end of an injury-hit 2006-07 season in which he scored only 12 goals across all competitions. Arsenal, who had won five trophies in the preceding four seasons (seven if you count the Community Shield), would not claim another until 2014. Wenger never got another league title, nor made it to another European final.
As those fans resting tired heads on cold tiles at Charles De Gaulle airport knew all too well, a dream cannot be forced, nor is it easy to return to. Arsenal’s 2005-06 season had been glorious, but it marked the end of an era. It was not just Henry but Cole, Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Ljungberg and Jose Reyes who departed over the following 15 months. Wenger had to build a whole new team.
Going to a Champions League final can indeed be a costly business. Only those who made the journey can know if it was worth it despite an eventual defeat, and all the discomfort that came next.
From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football's Nearly Men is published by Halcyon Publishing and can be purchased here: https://halcyonpublishing.co.uk/collections/frontpage/products/from-the-jaws-of-victory
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