This article was meant to focus on perhaps the most unique Europa League final of all time, and one of the most unique cup finals Manchester United have ever been involved in, based on pure footballing reasons. But last night’s events have changed all that.
It’s hard to recall an occasion when United’s season being judged as a complete success or failure rested on one game, even more so incredibly in a competition that most Red Devils fans would have scoffed at four or five years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson was still at the helm.
Nonetheless, that is the position Jose Mourinho now finds himself in. Win, and he can boast three trophies and Champions League football from his first season at Old Trafford – a strong return. Lose, however, and the sixth-place finish in the Premier League, not to mention some of the lethargic football accompanying it, becomes difficult to justify after breaking the world-record transfer fee and spending £157million last summer.
In many ways, though, that level of pressure put on just 90 minutes shows how fickle football has become, how we’re willing to veer from one extreme to the other without consideration for the vast grey area in between.
In turn, the tragedy in Manchester last night has put that fickleness into perspective. Yesterday morning, Manchester United fans thought winning or losing meant the world to them. This morning, the worlds of 22 families genuinely came to an end, losing loved ones to a moment of violent madness in the name of a misguided cause – their only crime being attending a music concert.
Talking about football during a time of such heart-breaking catastrophe feels trivial, emotionless and almost unsavoury, which makes the importance attached to United’s Europa League final less than 24 hours ago all the more incredible.
No doubt, it’s still a massive match in the context of United’s post-Ferguson history. But in the context of Manchester as a city, a community and a people, the consequences suddenly lack all meaning. What is a trophy compared to the lives of innocent children? What is Champions League football compared to the biggest terror attack Britain has seen in a decade? Football is just a game; bombs in your city centre is anything but. It shows how spoiled we are in Britain, and how absorbed we become in superficial, materialistic pastimes.
Nonetheless, Manchester United’s Europa League clash with Ajax still has an enormous role to play for all the people of Manchester, City or United aligned, and the rest of Britain too. Winning or losing has become irrelevant, but football has been given the chance once again to try and heal gaping wounds.
After the terror attacks in Paris, an international friendly brought populations from both sides of the channel together and provided some sense of closure after unprecedented horrors. A cup final in Stockholm, a city also recently victim to terror, has the potential to do the same for Manchester, Britain and all the countries facing terrorism that come under the UEFA flag.
Tomorrow’s final is no longer about the implications of victory or defeat for Manchester United, or Ajax for the matter. It’s about defiance, comradery and bringing people together just when everybody needs it most.
The trophy coming to Old Trafford would add a sense of honour for and dedication to the lives lost, but what truly matters is United and Ajax’s ability to represent us all; the daily freedom we all enjoy and our collective perseverance in the face of catastrophe; and to show the culture of Europe won’t be held to ransom by subversive, sinister actions. The show must and will always go on.
Football may seem trivial in comparison to the 22 departed, the many more wounded and the countless lives shattered. But there is no sport with a greater sense of worldwide community, with a greater ability to represent the people, with a greater potential to inspire hope and togetherness than football. That is exactly what everybody in Manchester, Britain and Europe needs right now.
Suddenly, Wednesday’s cup final has become about much, much more than simply defining Manchester United’s season. It’s become about much, much more than simply football. It’s about a city, a people, a country, a continent, a world and the ideas of freedom uniting them all.
Win or lose, I’m sure United will do us all proud, as have the people of Manchester during their darkest hour, and I’m sure an emotionally charged night in Stockholm will pull us all a little closer together. After the horrors of Monday evening, in more ways than one, United we stand.