And it was so extraordinary I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like it again. Let alone in the same stadium. In the same goalmouth.
The drama on Wednesday night not only equalled, but superseded that crazy night when Bayern Munich’s ribbons were on the trophy but they didn’t get to take it home. “Football,” as Alex Ferguson famously said, “Bloody hell!”
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that Patrick Kluivert was at that 1999 game and he was here again, in this same stadium, watching Barcelona not only score six times (as their manager promised they would), but hit three goals in the last eight minutes against Paris Saint-Germain, the team for which he’s now director of football.
Eighteen years ago, Bayern fans filed out of the stadium, despondent, as United players and fans celebrated with the trophy. Barcelona aren’t there yet, obviously – this was just the round of 16 – but the post-match fan scenario was different here.
Not only couldn’t the PSG fans do anything but sit there, so high up in the stadium that they could whisper “Why, Lord, why?” to the clouds, but the Barcelona fans, who aren’t renowned for their ferocious loyalty, hadn’t left – not one of them had moved when Luis Enrique’s side still needed three goals from the 87th minute onward.
All night the stadium had rumbled and the ground shaken at the fervent passion of this support. This time they knew they were in debt. This time, they knew that if this was to be Lucho’s last night in charge of his beloved team in the Champions League, then they’d roar him and his troops until the end.
What transpired will never been forgotten, which is why I’d like to remind you of what will be forgotten. And what might not be known.
For example, in a studio in London, former Real Madrid striker Michael Owen leaped up in disbelieving ecstasy at the beauty of football and did a lap of the set. How that will go down in the Spanish capital, I dare say he won’t care too much.
Something else I fear will be forgotten. When PSG thought they had the game killed off and they began to attack at will, Edinson Cavani was right through on the Barcelona goal. If he’d scored then, not only were Barcelona out but the plaudits would have tasted like tepid milky tea instead of the finest Catalan wine.
It would have been “Well, Barca tried” and “Close but no cigar”. There would probably have been a good deal of “If this was Luis Enrique’s last night in Europe with Barcelona, at least they gave him a defiant send off.”
A de rigeur, gentle letdown.
But Cavani didn’t score because Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who’ll not be talked about in the weeks, months and years to come, made a save that needed all the sangfroid, all the technique and all the guts that Neymar and Lionel Messi required to thrash home their penalties.
On that general subject of ‘guts’, the night even contained humour to go alongside the great triumph, the coruscating drama and the brutal heartbreak. “I hope they contract a whole load of new maternity nurses because I predict a baby boom in nine months,” Gerard Piqué said in the post-match mixed zone.
It might be forgotten, too, that both Enrique and Suarez hammered home the pre-match message that the game might well be won in the 96th minute. And so it proved. They were only off by a handful of seconds.
I guess it may be forgotten, when people still remember ter Stegen running up for the late corner kick to try and score, or when people still remember the delirium after Sergi Roberto did his ‘Swan Lake’ leap forward to elegantly volley the ball home for the winner, that Javier Mascherano suggested last summer that he, himself, might not be “good enough” for this level any more.
Yet here, nearly eight months later, the Argentinian not only played as an auxiliary right back in a hugely adventurous 3-4-3 formation, but he was brilliant.
‘The little boss’ is his nickname. Jefecito. Never let it be forgotten that he took the situation by the scruff of the neck and intervened in extremis often enough that the Blaugrana half of Catalunya should strike a medal for him.
All around him, there were disadvantages. Julian Draxler and Lucas Moura were so much faster than him in a dead sprint. Cavani simply towered over him: a physical mismatch. And not only did the ‘little boss’ leave them behind in the last 16 as Barcelona proceeded, but he proved that a combination of brain and blind faith can be more powerful than anything.
Compare Mascherano’s performance (plus those of Piqué and Samuel Umtiti) to the PSG back five, who had fear and defeat and lack of faith in their demeanour from the very outset, and you start to get a feeling for why Barcelona just became the first side in Champions League history to overcome a 4-0 first leg deficit.
Brains. Belief. Guts.
This Barça era, which now really stretches from 2005 until the present day, has more often shown genius, strategy, creativity, technique as trademarks. This was different.
Another thing I think people will forget when they recall Messi sprinting behind the goal, leaping into the wild Barça fans to hug them and offer a roar of defiance after the sixth goal, is that the Spanish champions didn’t really play particularly well. Not by their elite standards. The ball didn’t zip at the speed of an ice-hockey puck like it once would.
The first two goals were truly odd, largely products of PSG’s terrible jitters; they had the Camp Nou yips and they weren’t the first in history. The goals were odd but, admittedly, Andres Iniesta did something truly remarkable when he nipped in front of Marquinhos and back-heeled the ball into the air for Layvin Kurzawa to deflect in for the most bizarre own goal, Barca’s second goal on the night.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that on a night when they did something to stun the world, something that had never been done before, this group of players won not via a display of their stunning, plus-ultra football. No, this was guts, strength, unity, perseverance, a couple of dollops of luck and a smattering of brilliant moments.
Neymar’s free kick to make it 4-1 – an dazzling, elite execution – was one.
What else might people forget about this night which will be remembered forever? People might forget that when Andre Gomes came on, the unfortunate scapegoat for the team’s dip in form around the Paris debacle was whistled, again, by some in his own crowd when he did precisely the right thing by not making a risky pass and shuttling the ball back to ter Stegen, who could launch it long to Piqué playing as a makeshift centre forward.
I’ll bet people forget that Sergi Roberto, whose goal makes him not only the hero of the night but an all-time Camp Nou legend forever and ever, was hammered in the media, by fans and on social media after the first leg. Despite his vision, his technique and his “intelligence,” as Luis Enrique regularly calls it, he was suddenly “too small,” “too slow” and “not up to the Barca standard”.
And yet there he was, launching himself into the night air to puncture the idea that the Barcelona era has ended and to propel his team into next week’s draw.
Unless they’re Parisian or Unai Emery himself, people will forget that Barcelona were hugely fortunate in the opening minutes that Mascherano’s full-length, diving block didn’t earn PSG a penalty when the ball clearly bounced back off his arm.
A stick-on guaranteed penalty? Perhaps not. But would it be given seven times out of 10? I think so.
But to conclude: I’ll never forget one of my all-time favourite football players, a World Cup semi-finalist, texting me just as the final whistle went with the message “You beauty! Get in there!” (Hint: he’s not Catalan.) I’ll never forget my favourite rugby player texting me something very similar. The great and the ordinary unified by the amazement of watching football in its most amazing version.
I’ll never forget Neymar’s outfit when he came into the television rapid interview zone. A white bandana by ‘Apocalypse Now outfitters’, some rhinestone-speckled ankle boots … and a giant, boyish smile.
Fans crying, players tearful, some of the grey hairs in Luis Enrique’s stressed head instantly turning back to jet black. Journalists shaking their heads in disbelief. Sergio Busquets, the only player taking it all in with total zen calm, walking around and soaking it all up instead of leaping on a giant pile of Barcelona players in the middle of the pitch.
Neymar again, running around the pitch perimeter, blue vest on show while he whirled his playing shirt above his head in celebration.
All this I’ll never forget. Because thanks to this lovely profession, I was there.
I hope I’ve transmitted something of what it was like to you. And suggested some of the things worth remembering when everyone else has forgotten them. They’re worth remembering because this was pure magic.
Magic from start to finish.