Football is a game of fine margins. Games can be won and lost in a single crucial moment; a clumsy error or moment of brilliance at a critical time can be the difference between victory and defeat. From these individual victories and defeats, we begin to weave our narratives of the process we see before us. Seasons are cast, retrospectively, as good, bad or somewhere in between. The sensationalist tendencies of our sports media mean that “somewhere in between” is all too often forgotten, however. There must be a dominant narrative, expressible in a few words (or 140 characters, perhaps) that encapsulates an entire season of football. Yet that entire season is an awful lot of football; with 38 games of 90 minutes each, teams play roughly 3,420 minutes of football.
The desire to compress these long seasons into short summaries causes our appraisal of success in football to be extremely sensitive to even a single kick of a ball. Nowhere is this sensitivity more present than in the knockout stages of the Champion’s League. Winning Europe’s premier club competition invariably writes that season into a club’s culture. There is no prize greater in club football, and as such a win in the Champion’s league forces itself to the front of a coach’s legacy. When that legacy can last multiple decades at a single club, we find ourselves in a situation where the outcome of a few seconds can define years and years of a career.
This year’s Champion’s League sees a quarter final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. The result of 1999 final of that competition, between those two clubs, has had profound effects on the dominant narrative for perhaps the biggest winners of football’s new era of globalisation. Ferguson’s first Premier League title for United, in 1992-93, brought to a close a 25 year period without winning the top division of English football. His first Champion’s League title was the first for the club as a whole, and answered questions that had begun to linger about his ability to translate domestic dominance into European success.
Bayern Munich had dominated the 1999 final until the last few minutes. It took the intelligent movement and lightning reflexes of United super sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, not to mention a fair amount of good fortune to turn the tide of the game. United had required a legendary performance from captain Roy Keane – who missed the final due to suspension – in the semi-final against to even appear in that game. A game which, combined with the 1998-99 Premier League title and 1999 FA Cup, would form the dominant narrative not just of that season, but of Ferguson’s career with United, and thus by extension, his entire legacy as a football manager.
Had Bayern Munich held on in the dying minutes of that game, entirely different stories would have been written. Lothar Matthäus, playing at the tail-end of a glittering career, captain Bayern Munich that day. A win in the Champion’s League or European Cup was virtually the only honour missing from the trophy cabinet of one of the finest players to ever play the game, a player who had captained a losing Bayern Munich side in the European Cup final of 1987, over a decade prior. In that game as in this one, Bayern lead their opponents – this time Porto – for the majority of the match, before being sunk by two late goals. Had things turned out differently, the story of the 1999 final would not have been of Ferguson and his treble-winning side, but instead of the final chapter of one of the finest players to ever grace the game.
Similarly, things for United could have been different as well. It is impossible to tell how long the United hierarchy would have been content to dominate at home while watching Real Madrid, Barcelona, Ajax, Milan and Juventus reach final after final. Had Ferguson not been at United, it is likely that the rise of another player who will go down as a great – Cristiano Ronaldo – would have likely been very different. In the end, it does not matter. Ferguson’s team rightly go down as legends, rather than yet another Premier League-winning United side. These tales of hypotheticals and what-ifs don’t tell us what might have been, merely that when the prize is as great as the Champion’s league, and a game is balanced on a knife edge, one moment has the potential to define not only a season, but a career and even an era.