The most exalted clubs continue to find themselves located on top of the rich hills of history.
Sparks flew in Rotterdam
The most exalted clubs continue to find themselves located on top of the rich hills of history. The past in football continues to act as a compass for figuring out future itineraries. All roads lead to Rome, but Barcelona and Manchester United have been on considerably longer pilgrimages to reach Italy's capital. It is a journey that harks back to a saturated evening in Holland some 18 years ago. Before Rome in 2009, came Rotterdam in 1991. Before tonight's Champions League final, came the European Cup Winners' Cup final. United won 2-1. It remains a match of retrospective value. The Cup Winners' Cup may be viewed as a relic of a competition, a tournament that Uefa decided to shed in 1999, but it remains Barca and United's only final duel.
Before Barca or United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson lifted a first European Cup came a shimmery joust in the rain that projected as much as class as will permeate the Olympic Stadium. Barcelona possessed Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup, United had Bryan Robson and Mark (Sparky) Hughes. Hughes, now coach of Manchester City, was a venomous Welsh forward who struggled to find himself in Barcelona after being sold by United to the Catalan club in 1986.
He returned to United via a loan period at Bayern Munich. He wounded his old side with two goals. The second was instantly memorable. He veered beyond the Barca keeper Carles Busquets to ravage the net with a thumping shot from the narrowest of angles. The British pop band The Beautiful South, once sung the catchy ditty Rotterdam that prompted the lyrics: "This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome cause Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere alone." Losing finalists cut lonely figures, but sometimes there are no losers over the longer term. Rotterdam was the precursor to poignant times for both teams.
Barca were floored in Rotterdam, but flowered a year later. Koeman, the blond Dutch defender, was famed for the ferocity of his free-kicks. He scored Barca's goal in Rotterdam and shelled a similar dead ball into Sampdoria's net at the old Wembley to earn Barca a first European Cup in 1992. Ferguson has always regarded winning in Europe as validation of a club's reputation. He was five years into running United when he came across Barca. The Scotsman sampled victory over a Spanish club when his Aberdeen side defeated Real Madrid 2-1 in the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup final.
Repeating such a scoreline with United against Barca prompted similar revelry. Ferguson has collected over 30 trophies as United's manager. The Cup Winners' Cup was only his second. It came courtesy of the win over Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup final that brought his first meaningful prize to Old Trafford. Several of the figures that played in Rotterdam ended United's 26-year wait for a Premier League trophy two years later. Different generations continue the traditions. This final is a tipping point where United will win a fourth European Cup, or Barca a third. The Champions League remains the certificate of excellence for such clubs, but whatever happens in Rome, they will always have Rotterdam.