KEIR RADNEDGE in BERLIN —- Tonight, on the grand stage which is the Berlin Olympiastadion, no fewer than four Barcelona players can qualify for accession to an exclusive football club.
The Spanish double-winners are favourites to step up to a treble by defeating injury-damaged Juventus in the UEFA Champions League Final. The Italian champions, having demonstrated their considerable tactical discipline in defeating holders Real Madrid in the semi-finals, will not go down easily. Their own history instructs them: in 1983 Juventus were clear favourites themselves but lost to Germany’s Hamburg.
Still, the superstar sum total of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez is the most devastating triumvirate in world football, whether at club or national team level.
Victory for Luis Enrique’s Catalans, in his debut season at the club, will see Gerard Pique, Qatar-bound Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi match an achievement registered by only eight players in the 59-year history of the European Cup: winning four times over.
Indeed, only one player has managed that status in the modern Champions League era: Clarence Seedorf. He won four continental titles with three different teams (Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan), something no-one has achieved in the history of the competition.
The other multi-winners with four European Cups are Jose Hector Rial and Marquitos (with Real Madrid), Phil Neal (Liverpool) and Marquitos (four with Madrid). Jose Maria Zarraga and the great Alfredo Di Stefano both five all in Madrid as did Paolo Maldini with. Beyond them all is Madrid’s leftwing flyer Francesco Gento, whose six European Cups leave him out on his own.
Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are the only three survivors of the Barcelona team who beat Arsenal in Paris in 2006 although the Argentinian did not play the final because of injury and was not yet a major player in Barcelona. He was there along with Pique, Xavi and Iniesta in 2009 in Rome and 2011 in London (both times against Manchester United).
Not that Barcelona approach the final in entirely care-free mood. The certainty of a long-running tax evasion case continues to hang over Messi and inquiries into another tax issue have been opened in Brazil over Neymar – in addition, that is, to the impending Spanish court case in which Barcelona and presidents past and present are denying misleading the authorities over his 2013 transfer from Santos.
Back in Berlin Juventus’ injured defender Giorgio Chiellini – no close encounter of the toothy type with Suarez this time – has issued his team-mates with a motivational message.
On Twitter he noted: “Juventus are made of great men and players, I’m sure my team will fight in the field than ever before. They’ll show the world the courage, strength and determination that I have put in this final and all together we will to achieve this dream.
“My friends, tomorrow it will be with you to encourage and suffer for one goal … to win the Cup! Winning is all that matters.”
That suggests that if Juventus are to win it will not be pretty which is why the weight of simple football fans is behind Barcelona. After 11 intensely depressing days in the chaotically incriminating corridors of power, the game at large desperately needs the beautiful game to rise out of the ashes of scandal.
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