Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cardiff's big night of the Champions League final

I am delighted Cardiff, the first city I made my home, is hosting next month's UEFA Champions League Final, but I am also keen it puts on a good show to the continent and increasingly the world.

Whilst no-one can deny the impressive 74,500 Millennium Stadium is a fine venue for any soccer showpiece, eyebrows everywhere have been raised at the realisation that Cardiff is a little on the small size as a city (population 340,000) and does not have a major airport nearby.

Cardiff-Wales airport flies a summer timetable largely to beach resorts. Hopefully there will be extra flights laid on from Madrid and Turin, the two finalist cities.

Whilst the Welsh capital has experience of dealing with F.A. Cup finals, Football League playoffs and football and rugby internationals, the tens of thousands expected for European football's showdown will be coming from overseas via London so there must be plenty of transport options before and crucially after a game which could go on through extra-time and maybe penalties.

Given local hotel rooms for the night have been jacked up to outrageous rates, a depressing occurrence whenever a big sporting event happens, most will be leaving Cardiff the same night.

With only 4000 hotel rooms, all booked up some time ago, there is little option other than car hire and hotels further afield, or in one of the tents specially erected in a city park, Pontcanna Fields.

The now customary Final Festival will take place around a mile away in Cardiff Bay as the Millennium Stadium itself sits in the very tight streets of the city centre, which of course is a fabulous location for so big a venue. Fans arriving by train at Cardiff Central will see its looming stands and cantilevers as soon as they exit the station.

Unlike at Wembley or other out-of-town venues, there are plenty of bars and eateries within a stone's throw of the stadium. If it is a sunny day, Cardiff's ample urban parkland, particularly Bute Park beside the castle will provide a great place to relax and have a kickaround.

The centre has two main avenues. Fans will probably stroll down the pedestrianised Queen Street but not linger in the shops. St Mary Street leading to the castle is mostly bars and restaurants and will be buzzing on final day however.

The castle, originally Roman but added to by Normans and others, most notably the C19th coal baron the Marquess of Bute, is the one photo stop every visitor will make, its impressive outer walls now surmounted by a blue UEFA dragon clasping the Champions League trophy.

There will be road closures and plenty of police but if everyone is relaxed the visiting supporters will enjoy the occasion.

I have travelled to Cardiff from London by train on big match days before and found long queues at Paddington Station for passage to the Welsh capital. Pre-booking is of course advised but the fact so many Italians and Spaniards will be landing that day in London none the wiser will surely mean the railways and bus lines need extra capacity.

21 post-match trains to London have been promised and I hope that will be enough.

In changing the final from Wednesday to Saturday and adding a festival for a few days around it, UEFA have consciously tried to ape the Superbowl, increasing the price of tickets concomitantly, to make it a global event.

As much as I love Cardiff, it is not a city on the large side. Only Gelsenkirchen, the 2004 host, was a smaller place but Schalke's home is close to several other German cities in the most densely-populated part of that country.

Near to Cardiff there are only other modestly-sized cities like Swansea, Bristol and Bath. The only realistic result is that many will hop back on the London train after the match, meaning four hours of travelling on the day instead of soaking up the atmosphere of the host city.

London remains the major pull for overseas fans like it is for visitors. Travelling around Euro '96 it was clear many foreign fans were basing themselves in the capital and returning from Birmingham and Nottingham if not further afield after matches finished.

I am sure it will be all right on the night but I just hope UEFA have been adamant enough that the travelling fans, the frequently neglected factor in modern football, will enjoy the experience as much as the corporate guests, UEFA family and billion-odd TV viewers.

In the rush to make football big business, the supporters who make the effort at short notice to get off work and jet across to another country at some expense to fill the seats and cheer millionaire footballers, are usually the last to be considered.

The other issue if course security given the heightened threat of a terrorist attack on a high-profile European event. 1,500 police will be on hand to ensure nothing untoward occurs and the city did successfully host a NATO summit in 2014.

The city expects 170,000 visitors on the day, although that can only be rough guess. The Fan Zone in Coopers Fields can hold 7,000 and the Football Village in Cardiff Castle another 2,000. Down in the bay area, a Champions League museum will be open in the Wales Millennium Centre.

Many living nearby will be tempted to drop by to savour the unusually Mediterranean atmosphere.

Coming a year after Wales stunned the world by reaching the semi-final of Euro 2016, despatching the highly-fancied Belgians 3-1 in the quarter-final most notably, having the final of the European Cup in Cardiff constitutes something of a golden age in one of Europe's forgotten football corners.

Scotland remains far more famous overseas than Wales despite being of equal political status, so every piece of international fame can only be good for the local economy. I used to have to explain where Wales was to many a European but hopefully that has changed now.

Despite boasting an excellent castle, museum, parks and pleasant urban landscape as well as quick access to the Brecon Beacon mountains, the idyllic Gower Peninsula and other fine fortresses like Caerphilly, Cardiff remains a little off the standard tourist track for visitors to the UK because it is in the west of the island.

Doctor Who is filmed there but pretends it is London or various alien planets.

While Cardiff has a small Italian population, as shown by a number of family-owned ristoranti and Italian surnames in South Wales, and Juventus are the traditional team for Italian immigrants and their offspring, the fact local boy done good Gareth Bale is at Real Madrid will surely sway the majority of locals into backing the Spaniards.

Whether the Cardiff-born star can be fit in time for his big night on his home turf remains in doubt however.

A fit Bale or not, Cardiff will surely put on a good show and make a night to remember.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Real's familiar machine motors on to Cardiff

Real Madrid maintained their march of glory in Europe by thumping city rivals Atletico 3-0 in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg last week.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored another hat-trick and bagged yet another record, the first man to reach 50 goals in the knock-out stage of the competition.

Barring an almighty upset Los Merengues are heading to Cardiff to defend their trophy on the 3rd of June. But are we excited? Not really.

Real of course have won two out of the last three Champions Leagues and FIFA Club World Cup and successfully moved out of the intimidating shadow of the Barcelona renaissance.

And yet there is still something underwhelming about Real being the world's top team. Perhaps it is because the core of the side have been there for some years there is no excitement of expectation of the future, or maybe it is because Barça invented a new form of football - tiki-taka, which defied conventional wisdom by attacking through the middle and most congested part of the field with short passes.

Real by contrast use the conventional weapons of spreading passes wide, putting balls frequently into the box, and piling in on corners and crosses with aerial threats like Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo and the muscular Karim Benzema.

In Ronaldo they also posess the best accelerator in the game and perhaps the best aerial attacker. Gareth Bale we also know has exceptional blessings of pace and power to penetrate the best defences.

But a lot of their side underwhelm when considered as footballers alone: Keylor Navas is able between the sticks but not one of Europe's top ten goalkeepers.

While Pepe and Sergio Ramos (combined age 65) are evergreen, the rest of their back line do not excite: Fabio Coentrao, Danilo, Nacho and Rafael Varane seem reliable but not exceptional defenders, while Marcelo, a useful crosser of the ball in the final third, has long been error-strewn.

In midfield Real seem solid rather than skilful. Toni Kroos is an adequate but unexceptional holding midfielder and even his more creative partner Luka Modric is not as inventive or penetrative as his replacement at Tottenham, Christian Eriksen, who is surely on the Bernabeu radar.

Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has made 24 starts this campaign but only scored once, while Brazilians Casemiro and Danilo hardly get the heart racing either.

Young Spanish attacking talent in the form of Isco and Alvaro Morata have played minor roles this season, with 16 and 13 starts this season respectively.

Meanwhile James Rodriguez, golden boot winner at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia, has made only 12 starts and eight substitute appearances in 2016/'17, although his eight goals make a decent return.


Obviously the system employed by coach Zinedine Zidane works like a treat, based around making the most of Ronaldo's talents and if they are both fit, Bale and Benzema. The midfielders work hard to make sure the back four is not exposed at the other end.


And they also have strength in depth, as evinced by their comfortable 4-0 win away at Granada last weekend with a second eleven, a strength which makes up for the lack of galacticos in every position.


Clubs with big pockets can afford to have big squads to navigate a variety of competitions and whatever injuries come their way, so what keeps Real ahead of the pack is probably settled players and a simple system, a manager they trust and the high quality of their attackers.


There have been more remarkable dynasties in the Champions League/European Cup - think of the Real who won the first five, Cruyff's Ajax of the 1970s, Liverpool of the early 1980s, Milan a decade later or Pep Guardiola's Barça for starters.


There have also been some stellar one-off winners: Red Star in 1990 (although they played for penalties in the final they had dazzled on their way there), Louis Van Gaal's youthful Ajax of 1995 and Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004.


But the current crop from the Bernabeu, albeit less obviously outstanding, still deserve to be remembered as dominating Europe, whatever the aesthetics or ingenuity of their playing style.


A stern test in Cardiff awaits next month, but Real will almost certainly take the field at the Millennium Stadium as favourites once more.


Staying at No.1 is no mean feat in football.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile