My 32 years of pure Euro magic
As he prepares for tonight's big match between Man U and Barcelona, George Hamilton recalls his highlights -- on and off the pitch
In the mists of my childhood, I have a memory of a summer Thursday morning; everybody was raving about what they'd seen the night before: the European Cup Final of 1960 in front of 135,000 fans in Hampden Park, Glasgow.
Among the small boys in the schoolyard, Real Madrid's sensational 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt was somehow less significant than the fact that the number six for the German team gloried in the name of Dieter Stinka.
I still have to remember the players' names -- but for different reasons now . . .
My first final as a commentator was Munich in 1979. It was another world, in many, many ways.
The European Cup, as it was then, was a 32-team competition. Just the champions of the 31 affiliated countries and the previous year's winner.
Long hair, short shorts. Teams numbered 1 to 11. No sponsors' names on the shirts. There was almost an innocence about it all.
It wasn't just work; it was personal too. Nottingham Forest were playing Malmo of Sweden and Martin O'Neill, who went on to manage with such distinction, was a regular on Forest's right wing. We had been contemporaries back at Queen's in Belfast.
Unfortunately, Martin lost his place for the final. Trevor Francis, who'd become England's first £1m player when he joined Nottingham Forest that spring, wore Martin's number seven shirt, and scored the winner.
My annual involvement with the event began in 1982 with Aston Villa's victory over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, when I did the post-match interview with the winning manager Tony Barton on the touchline, actually holding the big jug-eared trophy! Wouldn't happen now.
And so began a fascinating journey across Europe, with multiple visits to favourite cities such as Barcelona and Paris, Vienna, Munich and Rome. And Athens . . .
In 2007 Liverpool were playing Milan. An early lunch was to be followed by a hike up the Acropolis. But that ended half way up, as the sun deceived us and departed behind dark rainclouds, and we took shelter in the shade of an ample olive tree.
When the rain eventually eased and the sun returned to raise steam from the hilly path, singing could be heard from across the rooftops. It was the unmistakable sound of Liverpool fans, in full voice, belting out their anthem: 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.
It has been wonderful to get to know these places better -- and the memories they evoke.
Tonight there won't be a German with a name to stoke the fires of schoolboy humour. No pal from student days to feel for. But another great occasion, for sure, another chunky deposit for the nostalgia bank.
THE TOP PLAYER
The arrival of Lionel Messi on this stage in 2009 gave us our first real chance to evaluate a player who has become the undoubted star of the world game now. Only 21 at the time, he scored one of Barcelona's two goals that night in Rome when they beat Manchester United 2-0 in the final.
His amazing ability to deal with the ball in an instant, his superlative balance, and his skill in gliding past opponents with balletic grace, not to mention his deadly finishing, have marked him out as the best.
Tonight, he can prove it again.
THE GREATEST FINAL
Nobody who was in Barcelona in 1999 for Manchester United against Bayern Munich will ever forget the incredible drama. United were a goal behind after 90 minutes when the fourth official held up his board: Three additional minutes would be played. I remember my words: "There is still time."
For Bayern Munich, it was an eternity. That will to win, characteristic of all Alex Ferguson's teams, was brought to bear in the most dramatic fashion. United scored twice and the first English team to win the title in 1968 had finally reached the summit of European football again.
MOST MEMORABLE PERSONALITY
Brian Clough was the man. His first final was mine too, in 1979. He obliged us all with his quick wit, and his trademark withering put-down if the question was deemed inappropriate or ill-judged.
I had a less formal meeting with the legend at a cup final in Rotterdam when we bumped into each other in the lift.
I mentioned we'd met before, and he was off -- just happy to talk about football. When the cameras weren't rolling, the abrasive showman was quite simply sweetness and light.
THE BEST CHANT
Football supporters can be very clever when it comes to finding the words to serenade or castigate. But, for me, it's the fans of Milan who win hands down.
At Champions League finals they've drawn on the deep well of their musical heritage. When things are going well, they belt out the Triumphal March from the Verdi opera Aïda. You'll know the one: Da, dah, dadadada da da, and so on -- Gloria all'Egitto. Well, La Scala Opera House is as big in their city as the San Siro Stadium.
THE BEST CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LUNCH
To be found in Vienna. In the Wollzeile Arcade, just behind St Stephen's Cathedral, the Figlmüller restaurant is a cosy spot where the menu is the opposite of extensive, but the schnitzel is the best in the world.
Over a foot in diameter -- yes, 34 centimetres -- this "wiener" covers the plate; a slim slice of the tenderest pork wearing a light, crisp breadcrumb coat, with a generous slice of lemon on top, and a bright green garden salad on the side. Pity we had to pass on the flinty white Austrian wine. We did have a game that night!
MOST EXCITING VENUE
Istanbul. Never mind the craziest match (2005, Liverpool coming back from the dead -- 3-0 behind at half time -- to beat Milan on penalties), just being in this throbbing, bustling bazaar of a city is good for the soul, a reminder that life doesn't have to go in straight lines, and can be all the better for it.
I was seconded to UEFA and working with FC Porto when José Mourinho became their manager in 2002. There was no fanfare, for nobody knew.
Two years later Porto beat Monaco to win the Champions League. A night to hold close to your chest, to remember forever, a once-in-a-lifetime that might never happen again? Not a bit of it. Mourinho strode off to the Porto end of the stadium, and chucked his winner's medal into the crowd. His Porto blazer followed.
It was some statement, a bold assertion that this wouldn't be his only European triumph, that he was indeed the "Special One".
It may have been inevitable. Mourinho won the Champions League again, last year with Inter Milan.