Europe's most prestigious and big-money club soccer competition, the UEFA Champions League, reaches its climax on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. The competition already draws some of the biggest television audiences in the world, with an estimated 80 million tuning in for last year’s finals. But in this age of internet and internet-supported streaming television, that number is a very conservative estimate, as internet users all over the world, from mainland China to Accra to college dorms in Saskatchewan all tune in to watch the game relatively free-of-charge. What makes this game special is that it pits the two currently undisputed masters of the game against each other—Manchester United versus Football Club Barcelona—and the Italian capital's Stadio Olimpicio provides a romantic backdrop for this epic fight.
The path leading to the finals for these two teams were quite different. Manchester easily disposed of the threat from Arsenal FC in the semi-finals by beating them by 4 goals to 1 on a home-and-away aggregate. Barcelona, on the other hand, scraped through to the finals thanks to a last-minute (literally) effort by Spanish sensation, Andreas Iniesta, at the return leg at Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge Stadium. It was indeed a grueling encounter that saw a Barcelona player sent off (albeit erroneously) and Chelsea having a number of penalty appeals turned down. Some Chelsea players even ‘attacked’ the Norwegian referee after the match because they felt hard done by his officiating. In fact some Chelsea fans were so incensed that they sent death threats to the referee, who had to be smuggled out of England in a fashion not dissimilar to the transportation of contraband through an airport.
In Accra the popularity of the English Premier League (EPL) has, by extension, made the Champions League quite popular over the years. More Ghanaians support the four top sides in the EPL (Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal) than any other clubs in any other league because of the presence of top African players like Michael Essien of Ghana, Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo. And since these teams invariably dominate the UEFA Champions League, the competition has also developed a cult following among the supporters of these teams. The semi-finals of both last and this year saw three English teams competing for the two final spots. (In both years, Barcelona was the only non-English team in the semi-finals.)
The passion in Ghana for foreign club football has become so great that the President of the Ghana football association, Kwesi Nyantakyi, has come out publicly to decry the trend. These days the games of the local Ghanaian football attract just a couple hundreds of supporters, unless it is a game involving the bitterest rivals on the Ghanaian club scene: Accra Hearts of Oaks and Kumasi Asante Kotoko. A number of reasons can be attributed to the general boycott of the local league in Ghana. Many supporters feel that there is a dearth of quality players plying their trade in Ghana hence there is no need to buy tickets to go watch a bunch of amateurs kick that sweet round leather about. (Due to lack of cash to run clubs, many club administrators in Ghana are quick to sell their star players whenever those players’ names start making waves in the world.) Until recently the Ghanaian league was not shown live on free television, and this contributed to the apathy for it. Hopefully, with better access to live Ghana league matches and more aggressive marketing, the organizers can appeal to that famous patriotic spirit of Ghanaians to extend their buy-made-in-Ghana-goods mentality to club soccer.
Going back to build-up to Wednesday’s European club finals, it seems the excitement is not all about the two teams involved. The match will also see current FIFA world best player Cristiano Ronaldo go against Lionel Messi (who many see as the next winner of that prestigious award). Wednesday night promises to be spectacular event, and you can be assured that every drinking spot and sports bar in Accra and other parts of Ghana will be filled to the brim with both fans of the two clubs and neutrals that bear a grudge against either team for one reason or the other. Here’s to a Romantic night of the world’s most beautiful game!