When you’ve watched football for a long time, it’s possible to believe in fate.
On a sunny, spring day in 1993, I was sat in the Stretford End with my dad as Manchester United struggled not only against Sheffield Wednesday, but against a mental barrier that had held the club back for over 20 years. As time ticked away, there remained a belief around me that something might just happen. Those of us gathered in that famous, half rebuilt stand took one last deep breath and time somehow seemed to slow down as the ball looped up into the air and Steve Bruce steadied himself by the penalty spot. He was about to change the whole mentality of a football club.
United began to make a habit of such moments. A little over six years later, something similar happened at the Camp Nou. If you watch the final few minutes of the 1999 Champions League Final on YouTube, take a look at the faces of those United fans behind the goal between the equaliser and the winner. It’s as if they just knew. Something was pulling the ball towards Oliver Kahn’s goal. And there was nothing he could do about it.
The build-up to La Remontada
Exactly six months ago, I was sat in the same stadium in Barcelona. I was ready to see if another miracle could happen. Surely it wouldn’t. Barça, after all, were 4-0 down against Paris Saint Germain from the first leg. And this was a very good PSG side.
And yet, there was a positive feeling around the city in the days leading up to the game.
I was at Camp Nou a few days earlier to see Celta Vigo dispatched 5-0. In the final 15 minutes of that game, the ultras began to unfurl banners with the hashtag #JoHiCrec. I believe. This was followed by the familiar chant of “si se puede, si se puede.” Yes we can.
Similar messages appeared on banners around the city on the morning of the game. It didn’t just feel like hope. It was almost as if the fans expected a comeback. La Remontada was possible.
Those who missed out
At half time it was 2-0 and there was belief around the whole stadium. The guy to my left was adamant that Barça were going to do it. 5-0, he said. Mark my words.
It was soon 3-0 and there was real expectation, but that’s when PSG seemingly ended any hope of La Remontada when Cavani pulled a goal back. Now Barça needed to score six. Three more goals. Incredibly they left it to the last six minutes to get all of them.
Some unfortunate souls missed it. A few people around me had started leaving as the match entered the final ten minutes and they thought the game was up. A man a couple of rows ahead of me shook the hands of the other socios around him and slowly made his way up the stairs to my left.
A few seats to my left, an old man – one of the real characters of the block – had seen enough. He always tends to leave around the hour mark. This time he’d waited a little bit longer, but had lost faith. He shouted to his grandson a few rows ahead that they needed to leave. The grandson resisted at first, but eventually followed the old man up the stairs.
I still wonder whether that boy has ever forgiven his granddad.
Could it happen?
The strange thing was that not that many people were leaving. And you could make a case for people doing so. After all, how likely was it that Barça would find three goals in six minutes?
But the vast majority remained. It was as if they just knew something ridiculous was about to happen.
Sure enough, it did.
A woman nearby was remonstrating with others for not celebrating Neymar’s glorious freekick with enough passion. “Venga!” She said, throwing her arms into the air and gesturing to those who hadn’t got up off their seats. It was now 4-1.
She didn’t need to repeat the gesture when the fifth went in. Everyone was on their feet by that point and no one was sitting down. The final couple of minutes reminded me a little of the two United games from the 1990s. Balls were being launched into the box and defenders desperately headed them out, but they knew it would come straight back. All it needed was the right kind of ball and the right kind of run. Everyone around me knew it. I knew it. There’d be one more chance.
When it came and the net rippled it was one of those moments that only football can provide. Strangers hugging each other, grown men with tears in their eyes. A man in a suit, who, perhaps only a few hours earlier had been in some kind of important business meeting – now falling backwards over his seat at an impossible angle and landing by the feet of a woman behind him. But nobody cared. Everyone was laughing or crying. It was hard to tell which.
20 minutes later most of the fans were still in the stadium, stood with a hand over their forehead. The other hand on their smartphone, trying to understand what had just happened. What had they just witnessed?
Some people might say that the significance of La Remontada has been diminished given that Barça went out in the next round of the Champions League to Juventus and their eternal rivals ended up winning the thing.
But I disagree.
For the modern football fan sometimes the game is just about numbers – how many trophies you’ve won in a season. But there’s so much more to it than that. La Remontada was proof of the emotional heights that football can take you to. Barça might not be in the best place right now, but I’d like to think that a young boy who witnessed that Sergi Roberto winner at Camp Nou will still be able to look back on that moment and smile – even if they didn’t go on to lift the trophy.