The Daggers Diary team have a nose for getting tickets for most big games so it is no surprise that they were heading off to the Europa League final for the fifth consecutive year.
Way back in August, both Benfica and Chelsea would have harboured hopes of progress in the Champions League. Benfica were drawn in a group containing Barcelona and Celtic, while Chelsea would have fancied their chances of progressing from a group containing Juventus, Nordsjaelland and Shaktar Donetsk, especially as they went into the competition as European Champions.
Benfica were undone by some very impressive Celtic performances, but the problems encountered by Chelsea during the first half of the season were many and were the subject of many column inches in the printed media. It cost the coach his job, and the replacement has been the subject of almost as many articles as the failure to get out of the group stage of the Champions League.
As the competition progressed, it became apparent that we were getting dangerously close to an all-English final. For a while, it seemed that Gareth Bale (or Spurs as they are more commonly known) would get to Amsterdam, and in doing so, provide their head coach with the chance to win this competition for a second time in three years.
However, quarter final defeats for both Spurs/Gareth Bale and Newcastle meant that the European Champions were still in with a chance of holding both major European trophies at the same time. So, with the European Champions getting past Basle in their semi final, and Benfica progressing at the expense of Fenerbache, we got a final that promises to be a really good game.
Of course, the idea of having teams that fail in one competition, only for them to turn up in the apparently lesser competition after Christmas is one that provokes much debate. Quite why the powers that be at UEFA felt the need to devalue a competition that already attracts less attention that it should do is open to question, but at the present time, they are the rules, however much they may seem abhorrent.
There are certainly two sides to this. For the teams that started the season in the Europa League, it may seem a bit on the harsh side to have clubs that have essentially mucked up their other competition to be allowed to compete in this one. For the clubs who have “dropped down” into the Europa League, then it presents a chance to retrieve their continental season, although there are plenty out there who feel that having competed in the Champions League at the start of the season, that this is a come down from which there is no glory to be had at all.
For me though, as a bluff old traditionalist, I think its all wrong. The league champions of each country go into the Champions Cup, while the cup winners (and three or four teams via the league) go into the Europa League. None of this “fourth placed team playing in the Champions League” rubbish. And if you muck up in one competition, then that’s it. No second chance.
Wednesday 15th May 2013, SL Benfica v Chelsea FC, Amsterdam ArenA
In the days leading up to the final, the lack of tickets available for the competing teams was an issue. Like all UEFA finals, there are a certain number which are available for neutral fans. These go on sale via a ballot run through the UEFA website, and after the application period has ended, the results are announced a couple of weeks later. This is how Dagenham Dan and I are attending the game. It’s also probably part of the reason why there are some that will miss out on seeing their team playing in a European final.
Which all seems just a bit unfair. Selecting a stadium that can host about fifty thousand fans should be enough for a final like this, but next year, when the final will be staged in Turin, there will be about ten thousand less in the arena. Even for a competition that attracted its fair amount of scorn recently, that’s probably not big enough.
The ticketing allocation for finals has always been a contentious issue. However, and speaking as someone who follows a small club in the nether regions of league two, is it fair that someone who supports a club that is never likely to play in European competition is denied the chance to see a major game like this? Are these events purely to be the preserve of those who attach themselves to a bigger club like Chelsea or Benfica? The allocation for the neutral section could be made a bit smaller, but then there are also sponsors tickets. If you are a company that pays millions of pounds to have your name associated with a tournament, would you not want a certain amount of tickets for the showpiece occasion?
Arrival in Amsterdam is in the gloom, of a grey damp and cold morning. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the plane is full of Chelsea fans, who may or may not have tickets for the game. The beers were already flowing in Southend airport, and it continues on the plane.
We aren’t able to check into the hotel upon arrival, so having left our bags in their storage facility, we head into Amsterdam. Having tried to find out what is going on in the town centre, we stroll away from the central station and find very little, except bars almost full to bursting point, and the chip shop selling the best fries in the Netherlands. Even at this early stage, Dan goes for the large portion of chips, but is soon struggling. My choice of the medium is met with scorn by the vendor, but the splat of mayo is more than enough to compensate for the smaller amount of chips.
Having scoffed the mid morning snack, we make a decision to head out to the stadium to see if we can find our programmes. After nearly missing out in Dublin two years ago, we are determined not to do the same this time. So a fifteen minute train ride is in front of us, and despite the train getting a touch on the cosy side, we arrive at the stadium to find that all of the merchandising and fan parks, so missing from the town centre, are out here instead.
Having purchased the programmes, plus the obligatory mini ball, we were dismayed somewhat to discover that the Ajax fan shop at the stadium is shut. The chance to get the new away kit (a very fetching black and pink number) is thus denied, although the credit card is no doubt breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Having spent enough, we head back to the hotel for a couple of hours, although more important is that we actually check in. The local news is dominated by the game, and one reporter has clearly drawn the short straw, by getting lumbered with interviewing people walking past a bar populated seemingly exclusively by Chelsea fans, none of which want to look at the camera. One interview with a Benfica fan is interrupted by a blue, proclaiming that Arsenal aren’t very good, or at least using words to that effect.
The shuttle bus back to the airport is almost full, but we seem to be the only ones using it as a way of eventually heading back to town as everyone else has a suitcase of some description. After checking which train we should be on we are, for the second time today, heading back to the Amsterdam Arena.
It’s much busier this time around, with both fan park areas full of people. We wonder around and as we stroll, Dan makes a spot; the Amsterdam final ambassador, Patrick Kluivert is heading our way, and Dan is straight in. After a polite enquiry as to whether we can have photo, Patrick agrees, and we get our picture taken. As we get ours completed, others start to head over to do the same thing, ensuring that his path to the stadium entrance is going to be taking longer than planned.
There is time to enter the Chelsea fan park, but aside from the heavy thump of the dance music offered up by the resident d.j. and the smell of something exotic (something that some of the local residents put in their cake apparently), the visit is short, and we complete our lap of the stadium, before entering.
By the time the kick off rolls around, we have been treated to the teams being announced by using the player escorts to show their position on the field, as well as an opening ceremony involving tulips, club crests and Patrick Kluivert parading the trophy. Each club is represented by a fan, and they are asked a series of questions by the two matchday presenters (one of whom sounds rather like the bloke at Wembley stadium) although given their patter, they sound more like each clubs matchday announcer.
The first half isn’t bad. The first chance is only a couple of minutes in coming, although Cardoza heads over. Early on, Chelsea display very little cohesion as a defensive unit, and are fortunate not to concede on a couple of other occasions. Errant shooting, as well as some scrambled clearances save the day for the European champions.
Torres is an isolated figure at times, and a couple of early kicks look to have him in trouble, although he does eventually continue. Frank Lampard has a shot which swerves all over the place, but the Benfica keeper is just about able to stick out his left hand and divert the ball over the bar. From our vantage point, it looks to have crept in, but we soon see that that wasn’t the case.
Benfica have been the better side in the half, and the second starts in the same vein. Gradually, Chelsea do get a bit of a hold, and it is arguably against the run of play that they take the lead on the hour. A throw out by Cech seems to elude the midfield of both teams, and the ball somehow ends up at the feet of Torres. He is able to out run Luisao, and after seemingly taking an age to round the keeper, he slots the ball home. The Chelsea fans in their section go nuts, as does a good portion of the allegedly neutral section.
Their good humour lasts about eight minutes; Azpilicueta is deemed to have handled the ball, and after a few seconds of confusion, a penalty is awarded. The Benfica section away to our right celebrates as Cardoza scores although closer to home, one Chelsea fan in our section takes umbrage with a celebrating Benfica supporter, and for a few minutes is facing away from the game, as he points and looks like he about to clump him one. The Benfica fan is just ignoring him, although it does look a difficult job.
Quite what he would have made of the winner in the last minute of stoppage time is not recorded. Despite Chelsea still not looking the better side, the corner from the right wing is met by Ivanovic, whose looping header takes an age to drop into the net. From the other end of the stadium, it is a second or two before it registers, and when it does, those of the blue persuasion are celebrating once again. As the corner is awarded, we both reckon that a goal for Chelsea would be a bit of a mugging, given the game. This is agreed with by those in front, although a few seconds later, they don’t really care.
Even at this late stage, there is still a chance for Benfica to score again. Another defensive shambles leads to a few “heart in mouth” moments in the seats, but once again, it is scrambled clear. The final whistle brings celebration at the far end of the stadium, and in much of the neutral section, while some of the Portuguese are already on their way. Chelsea become the first team to hold the Champions League and Europa League trophies at the same time, while Benfica stretch their losing run in European finals to seven, covering fifty years.
As soon as the trophy presentations are done, we are on our way back to the station, hoping for a train straight back to Schipol, but although we move as quickly as we can through the plastic cup strewn floor of the stadium surrounds, we miss the train by a minute, and it’s another half hour wait for the next one. Slowly but surely the station fills up although most seem to be heading back to the city centre, probably for just one more beer before bedtime.
Not only do we miss our intended train, but as we reach Schipol, we also miss the airport shuttle bus, which we see leaving just as we get outside the terminal building. Getting a cab proves to be difficult, and we eventually get a highly reluctant driver to take us back to the hotel. Throughout the journey back, we are made to feel that it is our fault for wasting his time driving such a short distance, and although we protest our innocence, he doesn’t seem to want to know. Even when we point out the shuttle bus in the hotel car park, he still complains about the waste of time. We hand over the payment to the grouch, and walk away.
Thursday morning, and the airport is full of fans making their way back home; as we pass through the terminal on our way to the aircraft, there are a few that look as though they slept there, with several lying face down on tables. As we wait at the departure gate, the plane arriving from Southend lets loose its passengers while we stare out of our glass cage, looking like goldfish waiting for the next feed. The plane back is full, although not all are Chelsea fans; there is a sizeable group of excitable Dutch schoolkids, which means that anyone hoping for a short nap on the forty minute flight is to be disappointed. One person a few rows in front is overhead to ask if this is the flight to Southend, which means that it must have been a very good night in town after the game.