Sunday 21 January 2018

Comment: Final offers glimmer of hope to city united in grief

Ajax players stand for a minute’s silence at the Friends Arena in Stockholm where tonight’s Europa League final will be played. Photo: Reuters
Ajax players stand for a minute’s silence at the Friends Arena in Stockholm where tonight’s Europa League final will be played. Photo: Reuters

Paul Hayward

Less than 48 hours after a bomb blast that would have been audible from his hotel suite in Manchester, Jose Mourinho leads his team into a European final that many will feel has become more, not less, important in the tide of human affairs.

Manchester United face Ajax in the comfortingly named Friends Arena in Stockholm as representatives of their city and their sport. They do so in a Swedish community where a stolen truck was driven into a crowd of pedestrians on April 7, killing five and injuring 15, and in the same month Borussia Dortmund's team bus was struck by three explosive devices before a Champions League tie with Monaco. In all this we see the omnipresence of mortal threat; a pattern that connects towns and cities across Europe, and now places sport with pop concerts and politics as targets for attack.

Nothing is excluded from this threat, nothing can be seen as pure escapism, safe entertainment, in this changed world. Except that Manchester's great footballing tradition will return to the fore here, two nights after 22 people lost their lives and at least 59 were injured at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, a venue at the heart of sport and culture in that great northern city.

Before this outrage, United were dealing with much simpler issues. Would they march back into the Champions League after finishing sixth in the Premier League? Would Mourinho end his first season at Old Trafford with the high of two trophies from four competitions entered - or the 'low' of a League Cup win and disappointment in three other competitions? Footballing questions. Not matters of life and death and hospital vigils.

And yet the strange and powerful dynamic that causes the show to go on, however strong the flow of tears, brought Mourinho and his players on to the Stockholm pitch for a four-minute amble around the centre circle.

Mourinho was first out, and first back in. In his steel-grey tracksuit he swung his laminated accreditation a few times and raised his eyes to a police helicopter.

His players looked ... well, how the hell would you describe it? Like young men who had watched with the same shock and revulsion as everyone else the pictures and headlines from the MEN Arena, where several of them will have been to watch concerts, or boxing.

This is not football shoehorning itself into the story. Manchester United are a global symbol of their city, and the attack came 12 hours or so before they boarded a plane to contest a game that will define their season. Thus a largely underachieving side with a sometimes erratic manager were cast into a far more complicated and challenging role.

United cancelled their pre-match press conference, presumably out of respect for the victims and their families. There was a case for Mourinho looking down the barrel of the camera and declaring solidarity with people back home. But nobody would find that an easy call to make. "We are all very sad about the tragic events last night; we cannot take out of our minds and our hearts the victims and their families," Mourinho said in a statement.

Those words conveyed great weight. And the effect of them was apparent on the pitch in Stockholm. Everyone here - participants and fans - will have been through the post-tragedy cycle of wondering whether the game had now become completely trivial or a symbol of defiance. The universe demands that something must fill the space in time that follows a terrible event.

So why not football: another activity that young people are drawn to, for fun and inspiration, just as they were on Monday night. Sucked into the anxiety maelstrom are Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley, rugby's Aviva Premiership final and the Champions League final in Cardiff, where 6,000 officers will be deployed over four days. In Manchester, the Great City Games will go ahead as planned on Friday, and the MEN is scheduled to stage the climax of the Netball Superleague on June 10-11, and 5 Star Wrestling in September.

That place of devastation is where Ricky Hatton claimed the International Boxing Federation light welterweight belt from Kostya Tszyu, in June 2005 - one of the great world title wins by a British fighter; and where Anthony Joshua took his final step to victory over Wladimir Klitschko, beating Eric Molina last December.

With its proximity to Manchester Victoria Station - the two are joined - and the sense of flooding into the city after big events to continue partying, Monday night's attack struck at Manchester's identity. It was impossible to imagine this Europa League final proceeding in its own little sphere, detached from Monday's shocking images. David de Gea, the United goalkeeper, caught the mood, tweeting: "Much rage, much pain. My condolences and support to the victims' family members involved in the atrocious attack to the heart of the city."

The club's first response was a minute's silence on the training pitch, then statements from club, manager and chief executive. From Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo's Twitter account featured a British flag with "MANCHESTER" written across the red central stripe. United offered counselling to affected staff. The attack became world news: a huge event enveloping a mission to win Europe's second-tier trophy.

Here, the Europa League final began bending to reality: a scaled-down 'opening ceremony', Swedish singers told they would not be needed. Back home, United's cross-town rivals had given the Etihad Stadium over to emergency relief.

At past finals, small inconveniences have knocked teams out of their stride. Bad hotel food, uncomfortable beds, some external controversy.

Winning European titles is a delicate operation. Carrying a city's trauma into a game was never part of anyone's plan. Not that the worst anguish is borne by football, of course - or by anyone not directly affected by the atrocity. But a big game has something to offer, by way of help. It might make the world recognisable again. For a while. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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