Benfica 1 Chelsea 2 Europa League Final 15th May 2013
This wasn’t my first visit to the Amsterdam Arena. A full 13 years ago I’d been there to see Ajax dismantle NEC Nijmegen 5-2, after a very shaky first half. I’d enjoyed that game, and was looking forward to this one ever since I got picked out as one of the lucky winners of the ticket ballot way back in February.
Having been slightly disappointed at being at a final with an English club in it last time, in 2006, I was rather unpatriotically hoping England’s three remaining entrants would be knocked out. Not only was it therefore no surprise that one made it, but also the one team I’d probably have least liked to have made it was the one that did.
I’ve nothing really against Chelsea, but the thought of Amsterdam city centre being turned into a 25000 strong stag-party made me somewhat glad I’d been forced out into the calm of Haarlem, where I didn’t see a single Chelsea fan pre-match.
To be fair, the overwhelming majority of Chelsea fans were decent. Yes, it’s certainly true that almost every fan over 45 looked like they would have been a “face” from The Shed’s 80s heyday, shaven heads, neck tattoos (cut here) and expressions that have been honed in starting a thousand fights, with a younger element looking like they’ve spent at least some of their lives with an electronic tag round their ankle. All of course in contrast to the Benfica fans, who managed to wear a scarf with a style more commonly attributed to Italians, outdoing even those who didn’t seem keen to live down to the negative Chelsea fan stereotype.
I think a final does bring out the best in fans though. People mixed happily outside the arena, and the police presence looked pretty much unnecessary. Maybe the sun coming out helped, and no doubt a touch of partaking in substances Amsterdam is famous for chilled the mood too. Even the charge of 7 euro for the match programme barely raised a grumble.
The area around the Amsterdam Arena certainly seems to have built up in the 13 years since I was there last. Before it was like a lone giant armadillo terrorising the landscape. Now it is much more hemmed in, skulking about in the steel and glass boxy undergrowth.
It’s also changed a bit inside too. The atmosphere sapping corner tunnels have been filled in, and the huge walls at the front of the stands down the sides have been removed, with seats now down to pitch level. The best change for me though was that the roof was open. It’d been shut the first time I’d gone, and it had muffled the atmosphere, making it sound like it had taken place in a tupperware lunchbox.
The open roof, with the sun shining in, also just looks far better. Even if it did still have the slight look of a skylight, or a loft-hatch left open, it’s easy to underestimate how important being able to see outside the ground is. Football is an outdoor game after all, and it feels gloomy with the outside shut out.
Rather ludicrously, UEFA had decided to only allocate each club 9800 tickets each. It makes you wonder which two clubs they though would make the final – Helsingborg and AEK Limassol perhaps? Either way, the official allocations were half of each end at opposing sides of the stadium, with the rest of both ends somehow being predominantly fans of the same team, giving a good red and blue contrast to each end of the ground. Benfica’s fan display was a bit better, and certainly much more creative than Chelsea’s decision to just give everyone a Chelsea flag to wave. Both were better than the creative minds at UEFA, who for the opening ceremony clearly got no further than brainstorming “something to do with windmills and tulips” before the cakes they bought “from that shop on the corner” clearly kicked in.
Once that nonsense was out of the way, the real action could begin. The Chelsea fans were in full voice, even if one too many beers meant that some were having trouble even singing in time to “Chelsea…Chelsea…Chelsea”, rendering it at times like a two-syllable “Frère Jacques“. Maybe it had a lullaby effect of their team, because the odds-on favourites were looking anything but in the first half. Benfica looked a very classy team, causing Chelsea a fair few moments of panic, but perhaps crucially weren’t creating many clear chances.
It looked like Frank Lampard might have made them pay for their wastefulness towards the end of the half, when an outswinging shot from an angle completely wrong-footed the Benfica keeper, only for him to recover and to just tip it away for a corner.
The 2nd half was much the same. Benfica did think they’d gone in front with a back-post header, but it was flagged for offside. They were then made to pay. A long throw found its way to Torres, shorn of the masquerade ball face-mask he’d been wearing for the past few weeks, and he just ran through the limp defence and around the keeper to put Chelsea ahead.
The lead only lasted a few minutes though. A handball only less clumsy than the attempts to deny it gave Benfica the chance to level from the spot. Oscar Cardozo, tipped as a match-winner by some, had to settle for the next best thing and be the match-equaliser instead.
If that maybe should have inspired Benfica to take the game to Chelsea and push for a winner, it had the opposite effect. They seemed the threaten less and less, and looked a bit like they had penalties on their minds. Chelsea were edging further forward. Lampard was again picked out in classic “looked skyward in disbelief” pose on the big screen, as another shot from distance cannoned back off the bar.
They weren’t to be denied. Just going into the third minute of stoppage time, a header back across goal from a corner deceived everyone, dropping in the win the game for the Londoners. The Benfica fans slipped out almost unnoticed with their tails between their legs. They’d lost and knew it. With their record in major finals, it’s hardly a novelty. For Chelsea “…champions of Europe, we know what we are…” rang out, and only the pedantic, and a tad foolish, would point out the Europa League doesn’t quite have that status.
For Chelsea fans, having “endured” a terrible season, where they’d only finished third and only won onc piece of silverware under the unwanted Rafa Benitez, it didn’t seem to matter. Particularly for those – shaven heads or otherwise – who can remember big games being away derbies at Charlton and Millwall, such details are hardly important.