x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Champions League: Football's new chapter began with a twist 20 years ago

Marseille defied the odds to lift the first rebranded Uefa Champions League 20 years ago. Ian Hawkey looks back on that night and what it meant for the future of the club and the tournament.

Basile Boli heads home the only goal against AC Milan in Munich 20 years ago.
Basile Boli heads home the only goal against AC Milan in Munich 20 years ago.

At the back of the team bus, Fabien Barthez closed his eyes and dropped into unconsciousness. The young Olympique Marseille goalkeeper had struggled to sleep the night before and now, even on the way to the biggest match of his life, tiredness caught up.

Around him adrenalin seeped from the pores of older professionals, on their way to Munich's Olympic Stadium, for the European Cup final. Or, rather, as they were all learning to correctly call it, by its brand new name, to the first final of "The Champions League".

Marcel Desailly, wide-awake, felt awed by the sheer numbers of loyalists who had travelled from France to Bavaria.

"Part of it felt and looked like we were in our own Velodrome," he recalls. "There were whole sections of light blue. Twenty? Thirty thousand of our fans? I wanted to take it all in, savour the moment of having reached a European Cup final."

That felt such a rarity for any club from France, though not for AC Milan, who began in Munich as favourites, by a distance.

Desailly assessed the opposition during the warm-ups.

"Looking at their players, [Paolo] Maldini, [Franco] Baresi, [Marco] Van Basten, [Frank] Rijkaard … they did not look bigger or tougher than we were. But they epitomised Italian football, and class, in their whole way of being. I felt intimidated."

Abedi "Pele" Ayew, Marseille's Ghanaian winger, lining up in the tunnel before kick off, also took a look at the stature of the opposition. He did think they looked big. So he drew his teammate, the defender who was also a useful target man at set pieces, Basile Boli, aside and whispered: "Look how tall they are! You'll never beat them at the far post. So, when we get a corner, come to the near post."

Then the teams marched out, ready to launch a new era in club football.

The first final of what the game now instinctively calls and lauds as "The Champions League" took place 20 years ago tomorrow. The competition had just moved beyond the old format of the pure knockout of the European Cup, at the behest of big clubs.

A genie was ready to be unleashed, a sporting juggernaut aboard which sponsors, broadcasters and advertisers would pay billions to clamber over the next two decades, the media event which would define midweek evenings and which professionals would come to regard as the ultimate endorsement of their talent and status.

In the old European Cup, launched in the mid-1950s and unchanged in format until 1991, underdogs had more of a chance. Two-legged knockout ties meant hierarchies could be ambushed and toppled.

Traditionally strong leagues from Europe's more populated countries had begun to feel a little uneasy when, in the late 1980s, Steaua Bucharest, Porto and PSV Eindhoven were, in successive seasons, crowned European champions. By 1991, when Red Star Belgrade defeated an ambitious Marseille in the final, a plan to introduce a group stage, a mini-league, had already been agreed within Uefa.

The word "League" became part of the brand at the beginning of the 1992 campaign. Uefa's new structure for the tournament would guarantee more matches for clubs reaching the novel group phase, therefore more potential income.

Europe itself was also becoming more united politically, or at least western Europe was. The Maastricht Treaty on European Union had been signed the previous year, designed to usher in closer cooperation between nations. The notion of a European league fitted in.

In Munich in the hour before kick off, a small symbol of that: Two men with high political ambition greeted each other and held hands for a moment as they walked towards the grandstand.

One was Silvio Berlusconi, wealthy president of AC Milan and aspiring statesman; the other was Bernard Tapie, millionaire president of Marseille, who had served as Minister of Cities in the French government until two months before the Munich final.

Two years later, Berlusconi had won his first election as Italy's prime minister and Tapie ... well, Tapie was in prison.

Both were larger-than-life characters, fully engaged with their teams. Berlusconi would later become notorious for interfering with the decisions of his head coaches. Tapie already was.

He communicated from the VIP seats by walkie-talkie with an employee sat next to whoever - and there were many - had the task of coaching Marseille. By the end of the 1992/93 season it was the phlegmatic Belgian Raymond Goethals.

Up against Goethals would be Milan's young coach, Fabio Capello. Capello had guided his team to 10 successive victories in the build-up to the meeting with Marseille, and, with Berlusconi had created a superclub, setting fresh parameters for how the elite of European football would operate in the years ahead, thinking in terms of deep squads not just potent XIs.

Tapie's Marseille saw what that implied: Marseille had recently sold the France striker Jean-Pierre Papin to Berlusconi's Milan, one of the world's sharpest finishers.

In Munich Papin had to settle for a place on the bench, a mere understudy to the attacking talents of Marco van Basten - picked by Capello despite a knee complaint - Daniel Massaro and Gianluigi Lentini, the winger who joined Milan from Torino a year earlier for the equivalent of €18 million. The sum remained a world record transfer fee for four years.

Milan had the better pedigree of the finalists, winners of the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, as well as twice in the 1960s. No club from France had ever won the prize.

But the odds were to be upset. The youngest man on the field, 21-year-old Barthez would prove crucial, as would Pele's final advice in the tunnel to Boli.

Barthez's nap on the bus had evidently resolved any problems of fatigue because in the opening phase he made important saves from Van Basten and Massaro. Milan still looked the more dangerous team.

Only in the last minute of the first half did Marseille win their first corner, although replays suggested the ball had not in fact crossed the line. Pele, with his subtle left foot, curled the corner-kick in. Boli had remembered the pre-kick off instruction. Attacking the ball at the near post, he met Pele's cross powerfully ahead of Milan's Frank Rijkaard, and put Marseille in front.

From there on, the French team sought to protect their lead. The maiden Champions League final became a doughty grind, not an end-to-end epic or extravaganza.

Marseille held on to 1-0. Their young captain, Didier Deschamps lifted France's first European Cup, just as a five years later he would raise France's one and only World Cup.

"It was the beginning of many things," recalled Deschamps. "That night put us into a different category."

For Deschamps, Desailly and Barthez, among others, that elevation would be confirmed with big moves elsewhere. But, first, Marseille's victory was to present Uefa, landlords of the new-look Champions League brand with a severe embarrassment.

Four days before the Munich final, Marseille had played a league match at Valenciennes. They needed points to smooth the way to a fifth successive French title, but wanted to conserve energy ahead of the Milan game.

The Marseille midfielder, Jean-Jacques Eydelie, taking instructions from above, approached three Valenciennes players and offered them money to ease up in the fixture.

Word got out. By June, French prosecutors had discovered quarter of a million francs hidden in the garden of the Valenciennes player Cristophe Robert's parents' home.

Several men would be charged with corruption. Come the 1995 trial, Eydelie, Robert and the Valenciennes striker Jorge Burruchaga were handed suspended sentences, while Tapie was put behind bars for a stretch.

Uefa banned Marseille from the 1993/94 Champions League competition. The French league stripped them of the 1993 league title and relegated the club to the second division.

Not until Deschamps returned as coach, in 2010, did Marseille win Ligue 1 again.

As for Milan, they returned to the Champions League final 12 months after Munich, and thrashed Barcelona 4-0.

They did so without Van Basten, the three-times winner of the Ballon d'Or. The defeat by Marseille would be his last ever game. He was 28. His knee problems had ended his career cruelly early.

And Lentini? He very nearly lost his life just three months after the final. Driving between Milan and Turin very fast, his Porsche left the road, out of control. Luckily he was pulled out from the burning wreckage by another motorist.

He returned to playing in 1994, but the serious injuries had affected his sharpness. He sat on Milan's bench throughout the win over Barcelona.

He only came on a substitute when Capello's team lost the 1995 final to Ajax.

By the time Lentini finally discarded the tag of costliest footballer on earth - when Alan Shearer, joining Newcastle United from Blackburn Rovers, inherited it - he was playing on loan at Atalanta, en route back to Torino, who, like disgraced Marseille, were then a second division outfit.