Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final, the winner of which will take home the most prestigious club trophy in global football (soccer that is), is poised to be a legend.
The faceoff in London's Wembley Stadium between FC Barcelona and Manchester United, the world’s two most popular sporting clubs in terms of fans and online following, is expected to attract a record number of viewers and money.
It’s one of the best lineups ever assembled in one field, including Lionel Messi, voted the world’s best player two years in a row. The value of their combined player contracts tops $1 billion. Although that total includes huge buyout clauses unseen in US sports, the average salaries of the players in the final still dwarf those of most professional athletes in America.
Revenue from selling the TV rights will also be a new record, with an advertising slot in Britain topping $400 million. UEFA, which oversees all football in Europe, expects more than 300 million live viewers, and perhaps even more than the 400 million who watched the 2010 World Cup final - which was won, by the way, by many of the Spanish players in the Champions League final tomorrow.
It is poised to become the most viewed club match in history and could become the second most followed sporting event in history, after the 700 million that watched the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony. This year’s Super Bowl, with a TV audience of 162 million, pales in comparison.
Yet Eric Abidal, the 31-year-old French star defender with Barcelona, nearly missed what many expect will be one of the best matches in history. He had a tumor removed from his liver a little over two months ago, a life-changing episode that galvanized the player and the club.
Mr. Abidal, nicknamed Abi, feared for his life and was told he would miss the remainder of the season. “I see life differently,” he told reporters last week. “Sometimes you think some things are useful to live, but they’re not. I’ve learned to separate and so I sold all my cars.” It’s better to give, he says.
This would have been the third Champions League final he would have missed, the last two because of injury and card bookings. “It doesn’t matter if I don’t play. What’s important is that we win,” he said in a televised interview two weeks ago.
His experience and unexpected recovery has spurred Barcelona, inside and outside the field, with constant dedications and cheering for his comeback. Fans would chant his name on the 22nd minute of every match to wish him a quick recovery. The week the tumor was detected Abidal came into the locker room and hugged each player.
“I’ll be back. I’m leaving just for a while, so don’t fail me,” he was quoted as saying. And they haven’t.
Barcelona went on to win the Spanish Liga and to eliminate its nemesis Real Madrid in semi-finals of the Champions League. In reaching the final, Barcelona racked up the most goals, 27, by any team in the tournament. Manchester also obliterated its rivals to win the British Premier League and reached the final of the Champions League undefeated and giving up only four goals. Thus, Saturday's match will be a showdown between the top scoring side against the undefeated, least-scored-upon team.
For Barcelona it’s a symbolic venue too. The first of its three Champions League trophies was won in Wembley in 1992. The team hopes all the stars are aligned to make history and even moved its travel plans a couple of days ahead just in case the Icelandic volcano decided to wreak havoc.
Some 90,000 people will pack Wembley Stadium, in itself a legendary field. Scalpers are reportedly asking up to $3,000 for a ticket.
But Abidal is just happy to be there.