The setting for the 2017 Europa League final seemed perfect for an observation as to the competition’s current place in the shop window of global soccer, as well as perceptions of same regarding
participants Ajax and Manchester United, formerly giants of the game and now something less.
Then a bomb went off Monday night at Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande
and in the agonizing minutes and hours that followed 22 people, several in their teens and early 20s and one as young as 8, slipped away from their loved ones and left this world forever. Another 59
United observed a minute of silence during its training session Tuesday morning before players, coaches and staff boarded a plane for a flight to Stockholm, where it
plays Ajax at Friends Arena on Wednesday. It was reported that pupils from some schools supported in part by the Manchester United Foundation attended the concert. This club, and this city, are deep
As was the case when the Borussia Dortmund team bus was the target of a bomb attack during the Champions League quarterfinals, UEFA fielded suggestions the final be postponed
but -- barring any security concerns -- it will go ahead as scheduled.
UEFA did push the back the Dortmund-Monaco game by only a day, citing a crowded schedule as the main reason it
couldn’t be delayed further. There is no such time crunch in play this time around, and not the tournament nor the teams were targets for this cowardly display of barbarism, but such shocking
events are all too common in Europe and other parts of the world.
Assuming stringent security procedures are in place, the sensible course is to let the teams play and the fans attend and
the viewers watch. In violent times often abnormal, the normal takes on greater importance.
Ajax -- winner of three straight European Cup finals in the 1970s -- hasn’t been in a
European final since it lost the 1996 Champions League final on penalty kicks to Juventus. United last won the Champions League just seven years ago yet despite reaching two finals since then has
fallen from the elite following the retirement of former manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
It needs to win in Stockholm to qualify for the U
CL next season. If it doesn't, the Europa
League merry-go-round starts up again in August and many fans long ago jumped off that attraction.
The third man to follow Ferguson, Jose Mourinho
, can be charming and arrogant
and disdainful from moment to moment. His hiring by United after leading the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter Milan against the Red Devils is seen as rampant desperation by some observers.
Yet in the aftermath of the attack, compassion emerged from the self-christened “Special One,” who canceled a pre-match press conference that would have been held as thousands
gathered near Manchester town hall to lay wreaths and flowers and pray.
“We cannot take out of our minds and our hearts the victims and their families,” he said in a
statement. “It is a pity we cannot fly with the happiness that we always have before a big game.”
This is a big game for United and Ajax. The Europa League winner
automatically qualifies for the Champions League group phase. United fell short of the Premier League top four and thus this is its only route to the UCL; Ajax finished second to Feyenoord in the
Eredivisie and a loss to United would propel it into the third qualifying round, the penultimate hurdle to group play.
How much the tournament itself matters beyond the Champions League
carrot being dangled depends on the teams and stage of the competition. It has been widely derided and snubbed, yet there have been remarkable accomplishments.
Sevilla has won the last
three trophies, twice via a third-place finish in the Champions League group phase. Fulham fans will never forget an historic 5-4 aggregate upset of Juventus seven years ago in the round of 16, a
triumph sealed by a spectacular chipped goal by Clint Dempsey
in a mesmerizing 4-1 victory at Craven Cottage.
The competition itself, rebranded as the Europa League in 2009,
replaced the UEFA Cup, which had already absorbed yet another competition, the Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as the third-tier Intertoto Cup. Initially it suffered as had its predecessors, but the
Europa League received a much-needed jolt of prestige two years ago when the Champions League field was expanded to include the Europa League winner.
No doubt the mood Wednesday night,
even for the winning team, will be much more somber than it otherwise would have been. Yet the atmosphere is also to be one of defiance at the appropriately named Friends Arena, where rival players
and fans shall stand together in tribute to the game that helps define their way of life.