Like everybody in the world not from Rome or Catalonia, I started last night by watching the Manchester City versus Liverpool second leg. Like everybody in the world not from Manchester or Liverpool, I switched over to the Roma versus Barcelona second leg soon after Salah scored. I was rewarded with one of the most extraordinary, exciting and emotionally-charged 20 minutes of football I’ve ever seen; or, frankly, that I imagine possible.
Roma were, of course, 4-1 down after the first leg (having kindly contributed two of those goals to Barça themselves). Barcelona, of course, had Lionel Messi (and ten other pretty good players too). Roma hadn’t made a Champions League semi-final since 1984. Barcelona had won the whole thing three times in the past 10 years.
I was checking the score, as I’m sure everybody else was, even as I watched City listlessly losing their third big game in a week. But I didn’t believe. Not when Roma got one back. Not really even when they got a second. They might have only been one goal away from edging ahead, but they would also have to avoid conceding, and the little Argentine does have a certain habit of scoring big goals.
I flipped over at around the 70-minute mark. The atmosphere was immediately intoxicating. Roma’s charge was valiant and aggressive. There was no hint of fear as they looked to attack the Catalan giants at every opportunity, seemingly not caring that a Barcelona away goal would surely end the whole thing. When Barcelona did attack, with their usual zip and invention, Roma defended everything that was thrown at them in a cool, composed manner.
Then, in the 82nd minute, it happened. Kostas Manolas – who had been excellent in defence – got on the end of a delicious, near-post corner from Ünder and flicked the ball goalwards. It looped unheeded towards the net, bounced almost precisely on the line, and went in. Manolas promptly lost his mind. If you – as not a professional footballer – somehow ended up in a Champions League quarter final and scored the winning goal, it’s exactly how you would look: pure elation, overwhelming joy. If this link has been taken down by the copyright demons by the time you click on it, I urge you to seek out another replay of the goal. Watch it a second time, and you’ll see Florenzi – Roma’s number 24 – simply holding onto his head in disbelief, walking aimlessly off towards the corner flag. It was a real moment. It was special.
Roma saw out the remaining time in a mostly professional manner, the final whistle blew, and the Stadio Olimpico erupted.
Martin Tyler has been Sky Sports’ top Premier League commentator since 1992, and the main FIFA commentator since 2006. He is, effectively, the voice of football in England. He’s an extraordinary commentator for a lot of reasons, but the most important of all that he still absolutely adores the game, even after all this time. He understands the emotions of football, he experiences them himself, and he’s not afraid to talk about them.
Tyler was stuck at the Etihad last night (commentating for North American viewers), unfortunately for him, but one of his most memorable lines came to mind last night, as I watched madness descend on the Olimpico after the final whistle.
It came during Barcelona’s thrilling 3-0 first leg semi-final victory over (Pep’s) Bayern Munich in 2015. Messi had finally broken the deadlock after 77 minutes, and – three minutes later – decided to end Jerome Boateng’s career as part of one of the most beautiful goals I’ve watched live.
Gary Neville let out a simple “Oh”, as if – even after his decades of experience in top-flight football – he still couldn’t believe what he had seen. Tyler: “Here he is again… It’s astonishing! Absolutely world class!” And then… nothing. For 14 seconds. He lets the roar of the joyous Nou Camp fill your speakers, lets the pictures of jubilant Barcelona fans tell the story for him. He starts again – “He’s taken them apart” – then, strangely, stops. There’s another eight second gap. You can imagine him looking around the stadium in those moments, or – like the rest of us – watching the ecstasy on the fans’ faces on the TV screen. Then, he says it: “Only football can make you feel like this.”
It was a thrilling game, phenomenally open-ended even as it had stayed goalless for 77 minutes. The stakes – this being a Champions League semi-final – could barely be higher, and when Messi scored that gorgeous second goal so soon after getting his first… I couldn’t describe my feelings at that moment – disbelief, excitement, joy (I’m not a Barcelona fan, but come on) – but when Tyler said that line, I thought, “Yes.” Tyler – after all those years – felt exactly as I did, and he knew that millions more around the world would be feeling the same way. And he summed the whole thing up perfectly in one line: “Only football can make you feel like this”. He didn’t have to say what “this” was, because we all knew it.
That quote came to mind last night. I must have watched 20 minutes of that game, and yet I can’t tell you how involved I felt in that time, how nerve-wracking I found them, particularly after Manolas scored. I’m not a Roma fan, nor a Barça fan, merely a football fan. And afterwards – after that final whistle blew – I felt such elation, such adrenaline, such emotion.
Tell me what else in the entire world could have that effect on you within 20 minutes. Nothing. No movie, no TV show, no book, no album. Nothing.
Sport’s great advantage, of course, is that it’s real. Its competitors have dedicated their entire lives up to that point on the one thing that they’re doing right then. There’s no acting. It means everything to them, it really does, and thus – if we’re real fans of the sport – it means everything to us in that moment too.
Last night was what football is all about. The highest stakes. The highest stage. Everybody in the footballing world outside Liverpool and Manchester watching. An enormous deficit. Underdogs against giants. And then, determination triumphing over talent, belief triumphing over all, the impossible coming true.
I’m not a Roma fan, nor a Barça fan, merely a football fan. I remember exactly where I was, and how I felt, after that Messi goal against Bayern Munich. I could say the same for a number of other goals over the years too. I doubt that I’ll ever forget Kostas Manolas’ face when he scored that goal, nor how I felt afterwards, nor how I felt after the final whistle blew and the Stadio Olimpico erupted. I only watched the game for 20 minutes. Tell me what else could have that kind of effect on me. Only football can you make feel like this.