It's been more than nine years. Precisely, it's been three thousand two hundred eighty-five days since that fateful night.
It was April 23rd, 2002, a calm evening full of hope in Barcelona. It was the day FC Barcelona and Real Madrid collided in the Champions League for the first time in history. It was the first ever "European Clásico", here in Spain it was dubbed "the game of the century". As chance would have it, April 23rd is also Sant Jordi, the holiday that celebrates Saint George, Catalunya's patron saint. Destiny seemed to be winking at the "blaugranes", it seemed like the perfect setting for a victory against the hated historical rival, Real Madrid.
Alas, reality was far from the hopes and dreams of all "culés" around the globe, including the pimply, hopeless with the girls, 15-year-old version of myself. At that time, Barça for me was a really big deal, just like sports are a really big deal for all teenage sports fans. During those years we tend to over-amplify our emotions, in sports as much as in any other aspect of life. Admittedly, it was probably too much of a deal, which explains why I dejectedly ended up crying in my bed after the game. That loss meant so much for me. I still can't believe my heart was crushed so badly. That was the first and last time I cried because of Barça.
Honestly, I don't remember much about that game. I kinda remember Madrid having control for the majority of the match, but I can't really recall how everything unfolded. I just remember, very clearly, the two hope-squandering goals. I remember Zidane gracefully lifting the ball above Bonano. I remember McManaman xeroxing Zidane's goal just as the game was coming to a close, virtually erasing any hopes of advancing to the final.
That was pretty much the end of any hope of winning the elusive second Champions League of Barça's history. After that game, we looked like a cursed team, always unable to win in Europe, trapped right in the middle of a seemingly endless six year title drought. Obviously, the second leg was little more than a formality. I remember Barcelona's sports papers, pushing for a miraculous comeback. But I also remember that nobody really believed. Any thin hope we had was quickly squandered by a beautiful strike by Raul in the first half. And that was that. Game over.
Today is different though. Today's Barça is such a diametrically different team. 2002 Barça didn't really stand a chance. 2011 Barça, instead, was heavily and deservedly favorite, after dominating soccer over the last few years, both at home and abroad. Still, a certain unnerving sense of insecurity could be felt in the city throughout these last three weeks, during the Barça-Madrid NBA-like series of games. As "culés" we're wired to be pessimistic, even when we have the best team in the world. It's amazing how painfully easy it still is to fall into familiar traps and start thinking negatively. It was even easier after the unexpected loss in Copa Del Rey's final.
Nevertheless, any pessimism and negative vibe was blown away last week, just as Lionel Messi was weaving at bullet-speed through helpless white-clad defenders to score a goal that the word "awesome" doesn't really come close to describe. A goal that came just as the game was coming to a close. Exactly like nine years ago, three thousand two hundred eighty-five days ago. This time though, the roles were reversed: it was Barça the one crushing the storied enemy's heart. It was us, the ever suffering "culés", the one rejoicing.
After a week, today, the second leg was nothing like a formality, we still had to suffer when Madrid surged after Marcelo's goal. Still, it was too little too late. In the end, this Barça was just too much for this Madrid, unlike that Barça, on that fateful and painful 23rd of April.
Today, after so long, we avenged that elimination. Today, I don't have to cry.
At last, redemption.
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