It will be with a heavy heart and the bittersweet tears of nostalgia that the red half of Munich will look on as Manchester United and FC Barcelona do battle at Wembley tomorrow evening. At the final of dreams, between arguably the two best teams in Europe, FC Bayern will be notable only by their absence, if at all. With the happy exception of last year, moreover, this has become a trend that has now spanned an entire decade.
Last Monday marked the tenth anniversary of Bayern’s Champions League Final victory over Valencia CF. The 2001 title was the last that FCB, and indeed any German team, has achieved on European soil; for all the financial stability and friendly accessibility of the Bundesliga, European trophies from its top clubs have become as noticeable a rarity as a smiling Berliner. Last season saw Louis van Gaal’s Bayern side reach the Champions League Final in unprecedented fashion, before being cruelly manipulated by the impenetrable defence of Internazionale, and having their hearts ruthlessly put to the sword by two Diego Milito strikes. The Bundesliga plodded ever forwards – still trophyless – and the Bayern fans were consigned to another year of watching highlights of European glories past.
To mark this slightly disturbing tenth anniversary, the players of that 2001 side this week congregated for a celebratory reunion, and a chance to have their now slightly more age worn faces pictured once again next to the most hallowed trophy in European football. Watching them troop diligently past various cameras was a nostalgic tragedy in itself; Oliver Kahn looked slightly less unkempt, Stefan Effenberg appeared a little porkier, and Owen Hargreaves’ transition from baby faced young Englishman to embittered, injury plagued professional was tragically but unmistakeably complete. Mehmet Scholl looked like someone’s fifty year old uncle. But then again, Mehmet Scholl has always looked like someone’s fifty year old uncle, since he was about twelve. Alongside these were the memory stirring faces of Bixente Lizarazu (a bit greasier), Giovane Elber (a bit greyer), Hasan Salihamadzic (much the same) and of course, Ottmar Hitzfeld. Indeed, with such an apparently impressive line up, the onlooking Bayern fan might have been forgiven for donning the sepia tinted glasses of nostalgia and proudly declaring that this was one of the greatest football sides ever to grace the European stage.
Such hyperbole would have been quickly crushed, however, by the ever brutal Olli Kahn. The man whose penalty saves secured a Bayern victory in that final was quick to add some realism to the teary emotion of Monday evening; his somewhat smug declaration that the class of 2001 were not the best team in Europe at that time, but simply the most effectively gelled unit, could be interpreted as an extension of his increasingly common habit of poking fun at the modern Bayern sides. Having faced the quiet, Stalinist wrath of Kalle Rummenigge following his recent criticisms of the current Bayern set up, Kahn’s comment on Monday did, perhaps inadvertently, provide a clear cut comparison to the team of van Gaal which, plagued by infighting as it was, fell just short at the final hurdle. That he made his comments in such a spirit is unlikely, but there was an unmistakeable message in his words: the 2001 side is a reference point by which the current bunch should judge and shape itself.
Certainly, the achievements of that team of ten years ago were more remarkable than anything any of its successors has offered to date. The Champions League Final win in Milan in May 2001 completed the phenomenal turnaround from a side that had, just two years previously, undergone a footballing catastrophe in the same fixture. In 1999 Bayern were mere minutes away from European glory, before some slack defending and a certain merciless Norwegian stole it away from them, completing Manchester United’s now legendary treble. Two years on, and FCB not only managed to exact revenge upon their 1999 conquerors – goals from Sergio and Elber eliminated United in the Quarter Finals in 2001 – but also to reach the final and, after god knows how many penalties, to lift the great silver trophy for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. The flowing mane of Oliver Kahn as he threw himself into the path of the final penalty from Mauricio Pellegrino is one that will endure in Bayern memories for generations – it is already available, complete with manic commentary (wer sonst, wer sonst?!) for the Youtube generation who may well be too young to have seen it.
Such, after all, is the length of time that has passed since that fateful night in Milan. Of Hitzfeld’s famous team, most are now retired, and all have left FC Bayern München. The gnarled old Germans like Effenberg and Kahn have taken up various occupations in their retirement; the ever smiling Giovane Elber made a brief appearance on British Eurosport during the World Cup last summer, and the babyfaced Owen Hargreaves has played approximately three full games of football in the last ten years, thanks to his recurring knee injury. On the plus side, he has also cost Manchester United a small fortune in the same period, thereby completing FC Bayern’s revenge for 1999. The manager, Hitzfeld himself, is currently in charge of the Swiss national team, following one embarrassing and one emotional departure from FC Bayern since 2001. They could have used his help this past season.
So, as the financial and philosophical powers of United and Barça respectively play out the latest instalment of the monopoly they have over the Champions League in recent years, the ever divisive fellows on the Säbener Straße will be ruing yet another missed opportunity to repeat the feats of 2001. Next year’s final will be played at the Allianz Arena and Bayern will be looking to reawaken the spirit of 2001, and wipe away the cobwebs which currently fill their European trophy cabinet. For now, four stars crown the Bayern emblem on their European shirts – one for each time they have been Champions of Europe. Is it too much to imagine that in twelve months time, they might be sewing on a fifth?