For those of you unfamiliar with football and the Champions League, here is how it works. The top three or four teams from every league in Europe compete to win the biggest prize in club football. It starts with group stages, from which the two top teams in each group advance to the knockouts. Each knockout match is played over two legs, one game at home and one away. As the phrase “knockout” suggests, if you lose over the two legs, you’re out. The goal is to get to (and then win) the final, which this year is being held at Wembley Stadium, in London (Faridah’s hometown).
For those of you unfamiliar with Casilda and Faridah’s friendship, about 70% of their conversations are about football. Normally, they are pretty neutral. Their teams (Real Madrid for Cas and Manchester United for Faridah) are in different leagues and hadn’t played each other for ten years. Then during fall break Cas sent Faridah the following e-mail: “REAL MADRID-MANU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” signifying the end of a ten-year wait.
The final score over two legs was 3-2 to Real Madrid after Nani of Manchester United was controversially sent off during the second match.
Bloody hell. Firstly, having to play Real in the round of 16 was terrible. Secondly, having to watch a football match not only with, but against Cas, was perhaps the ultimate test of our friendship.
We are both way too emotionally invested in football, so watching together might not have been the greatest idea. Cas is memorably smug. She came into my room laughing and shouting that dreadful final day of the 2011/12 season when Man City beat us to the title with a last minute goal, and it was the first and last time in our friendship that I truly hated her. Though our teams are in different leagues, we often try to find variables that put them on ground equal enough to be able to determine a winner, to show that one of us is the clearly superior being for supporting the clearly superior team.
“You would not be able to cope with losing Ronaldo the way we did”, I often say to her, and I believe it. We lost our best player, and the best player in the world to Real Madrid and we won the league two years later. “Our history is clearly better,” she often says unprompted. “We have nine champions league titles, how many do you have?” We have three. “That’s in the past,” I reply. “We have been in three finals since 2008, when was the last time you were in the final?” 2001. And so our banter goes, a clear winner never determined because there are no hard facts or results to measure the teams against.
Watching the first leg, the atmosphere was more of a celebration of football.
We had neutrals and haters, crowded in my room as we took in “the match the world has been waiting for.”
The game was a preview; it ended 1-1 and so didn’t mean anything really There was a clean slate for the second leg at Old Trafford, Man U’s home stadium.This time it was just Cas and I. We watched the game on my futon, with something of a white line between us. I ran back from class, as did she, and for the first ten minutes we each had our laptops out. What are the teams? What are the tactics? What does BBC Sport think of the tactics? (me) What does MARCA think of the tactics? (her). What is Twitter saying? No Rooney? No Benzema? Anxious, excited, nervous – huge game. During the first half, I was on the edge of my seat, Cas was reclined. Chillin’.
United were clearly better. We had more chances, we kept Ronaldo at bay, and we looked confident, focused. At the beginning of the second half we scored (well, they scored) through an own goal by Ramos. I was already envisioning myself at Wembley in May (hopefully not against Barcelona this time). I jumped everywhere, all over my room, but there was no one to hug or celebrate with, just a distraught-looking Cas now on the edge of the futon.
And then, in the 56th minute, Nani was sent off in perhaps the worst refereeing decision I have seen go against Manchester United, and it was over. Real brought on an extra midfielder; they piled the ball into the box. Eventually it was going to go in. It went in twice. Cas jumped around this time. Got on her knees in front of the television, fists clenched. So annoying. I begged her to let me turn it off.
She wouldn’t. I watched in silence until the end of the match. Real Madrid won. 3-2 over the two legs, 2-1 on the night. Cas and I are obsessed with football theory, and I guess the only positive I can take from this match is that Sir Alex at 71 is still a masterful coach. I am pretty certain he out-tacticked Mourinho, both in Madrid and in Manchester.
We have pretty strict rules when it comes to determining whether a game has been masterminded or just played. Has a key player been left out for the sake of the shape of the team? We had that in Rooney. A player out of position? We had that in Giggs, a 39-year old, notoriously left-footed veteran, playing on the right. And key substitutions? Mourinho probably won on the substitutions part, even though they were both forced by injuries.
Sadly, all this was rendered meaningless, and the game ruined, by the referee. Seeing as the match was not determined on equal terms, I guess we’ll just have to go back to endless taunting, waiting for one day when one team shows itself to be clearly superior.