UEFA Women's Champions League Final
VfL Wolfsburg 1-0 Olympique LyonnaisStamford Bridge
Attendance: 19 278
CONGRATULATIONS to VfL Wolfsburg who won the UEFA Women's Champions League title on a showery evening at Stamford Bridge.
The victory completes a remarkable end to the season for Wolfsburg's ladies. The club which had previously never won a trophy has, within two weeks, ended the 2012/13 campaign with a treble of league, domestic cup and Champions League glory.
This was an evening where Chelsea's home played host to a prestigious UEFA event graced by clubs from Germany and France. Images of the two teams were displayed on the wall at the back of the West Stand, providing a popular photo opportunity for many fans, and further images adorned the wall to the rear of the Shed End.
In an impressive opening ceremony just minutes before kick-off, a huge purple star and the badges of both clubs were unfurled on the pitch to the sound of the UEFA anthem, as Faye White, former Arsenal and England captain and now a Champions League ambassador, carried the trophy into the arena.
The Women's UEFA Champions League, originally named the UEFA Women's Cup, is an 11-
year-old competition which adopted its current name and format in season 2009/10 when the final became a one-off match, rather than a two-legged affair.
This season 54 teams have been involved and following a qualification process, 32 made it through to the knock-out stages which began in September.
For the fourth year running, the final was a Franco-German affair. Olympique Lyonnais were appearing in their fourth consecutive final and aiming to become the first team to lift the cup three seasons in a row. Having lost on penalties to FFC Turbine Potsdam in 2010, the French outfit had gained revenge by beating the same opposition 12 months later and had gone on to retain the trophy by defeating 1.FFC Frankfurt in last year's final, played in front of a crowd of over 50 000 in Munich's Olympic Stadium.
Lyon's domination of French women's football is highly impressive. The team, managed by Patrice Lair, have won their domestic league every year since 2007, remaining unbeaten in each of the last three seasons, and before tonight were on an unbeaten run of 76 games, their last defeat having been after a penalty shoot-out in 2011. They had not lost any of their previous 118 matches over 90 minutes.
Meanwhile VfL Wolfsburg had reached this final in their debut season in the Champions League, and their presence ensured German representation in the final for the sixth consecutive season. The club from the home of Volkswagen may have been relative novices at this level compared to their opponents, but had already won one cup final this week, defeating Turbine Potsdam to clinch Germany's domestic cup title in Cologne last Sunday.
The German team did not lack Champions League experience either. Six members of the squad had already won the competition and two of tonight's starting XI, Josephine Henning and captain Nadine Kessler, were in the Turbine Potsdam team which had defeated tonight's opponents in the final of 2010.
So Wolfsburg were no minnows here, and made the brigher start to the game, while the reigning European champions took time to make their mark.
Sitting on the lower tier of the East Stand, towards the corner of the Shed End, I sensed that the majority, but by no means all, of those around me favoured Olympique, with more German fans sitting on the opposite side. Many young people were in the crowd, teenagers and schoolchildren amongst them, all enjoying the evening's entertainment - on a school night too, or are some schools already on half-term?
With just under 30 minutes played, a Mexican Wave gathered momentum around Stamford Bridge's lower tier. I tolerated this form of merriment among the crowds at the London 2012 events, but nearly one year on, perhaps I'm turning back into the grumpy old man, as I once again found it an annoying and unwanted distraction from the action on the pitch.
The destiny of the trophy was ultimately to be decided on a 73rd minute penalty. Rumanian
Müller, who joined the then second division Wolfsburg back in 2005, had already come close to opening the scoring, shooting narrowly wide just moments before the interval, but now her time had come.
After German 'keeper Alisa Vetterlein held a shot at the second attempt, deep into four minutes of added time, Wolfsburg were able to begin a joyous celebration at the end of a momentous season. UEFA President Michel Platini presented the 60 cm-high, sterling silver trophy on the presentation platform assembled for the evening on the middle tier of the West Stand.
Keen to make the most of the occasion, I remained in the stadium to witness the post-match scenes, as die Wölfinnen (the She-Wolves, as per the translation in the match programme) paraded the cup around Stamford Bridge, starting in front of the West Stand, where the majority of their fans seemed to be gathered, before coming round to the Shed End and East Stand.
Despite having no allegiance to either side, I had instinctively favoured the German team in this Germany v France clash, not simply because they were the underdogs, but more due to my own personal Franco-German history.
I studied both languages many years ago, with a 50:50 split for the first two years of my University course. As the second year wore on, I needed to choose one of the two countries in which to spend a year immersing myself in the language. I opted for Germany, perhaps only because I felt my French was slightly stronger at the time, and wanted to bring my German up to scratch. Otherwise it could have come down to the toss of a coin (or even a penalty shoot-out, but we all know who would have won that).
So the dye was cast. I went on to spend ten months of my life in the beautiful Sauerland region, falling in love with Germany and its language, going to a wide selection of Bundesliga matches (of course), and letting my French go very rusty in the meantime. The balance was never to be restored.
Surprisingly, perhaps shamefully, this was my first ever visit to a women's football match. Last summer I had watched some of the London 2012 football tournament on television, and had marvelled at the sight of over 70 000 fans watching Hope Powell's Team GB defeat Brazil at Wembley to reach the quarter-finals.
Furthermore, England's top women's club and 2007 Champions League winners, Arsenal Ladies, play their home games practically on my doorstep at Borehamwood, and must surely be worth a visit, and a blog post, soon.
This was my first trip to Stamford Bridge since January 1996, back in the pre-Abramovich era when Chelsea were managed by Glenn Hoddle and had an entertaining but largely unsuccessful team containing international superstars such as Ruud Gullit and former Mansfield Town goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock.
Sitting high up the East Stand all those years ago for the visit of Nottingham Forest, any unease I felt about being an East Midlander in the middle of a partisan London crowd soon lifted when a young chap sitting just in front of me, possibly a tourist from overseas, asked the bloke next to him who the guy with the dreadlocks in the number 4 shirt was. The Dutch maestro Gullit, who would become Chelsea manager the following summer when Hoddle left Stamford Bridge to take the England job, was only one of the most famous and instantly-recognisable players in the world at the time. Suddenly I had felt much more "at home".
Although it was the same East Stand I sat in tonight, little or nothing else about Stamford Bridge remains as it was in the 1990s. The stadium now has a three-tier West Stand, opened in 2001 and with a row of executive boxes sitting above its second tier. The Shed End, once the home terrace where the most vocal Chelsea fans gathered, but a temporary uncovered stand on each of my last two visits, is now a double-decker structure which includes the away section for domestic matches.
The new stands also wrap neatly around all four corners of the stadium, making the ground completely enclosed.
At the end of an enjoyable evening, I was pleased to have made it to one Champions League final in London in 2013. The other one, the all-German clash between Bayern Munich and my favourite Bundesliga team, Borussia Dortmund, awaits us at Wembley on Saturday. With Dortmund receiving over half a million applications for a paltry 24 000 tickets, my chances of getting a ticket in the ballot were always slim. Sufficed to say, I did not have the necessary huge slice of good fortune.
Not to worry - Wembley may be out of my reach this time, but Thursday night at Stamford Bridge delivered a successful and inspiring end to my 2012/13 season.