After one of football’s most destructive scandals, the task facing Barcelona and Juventus in the Champions League final tomorrow seems simple. Showing the sport at its best, with an entertaining demonstration of artistry, should ensure that the spotlight swings back on the players for at least a couple of hours.
It seems a heavy burden but this will be a game starring Lionel Messi, who possesses the finesse and repertoire of goals to captivate the world in an instant.
“There are moments when Messi has the ball and what happens next is only down to him,” Barcelona team-mate Javier Mascherano said. “No matter what his opponents do.”
Just look at the ten goals he has already scored in the 12 games en route to the final in Berlin. He is now trying to become the first player to score in three Champions League finals after netting in Barca’s 2009 and 2011 triumphs.
“An extra-terrestrial who plays with us humans,” is how Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon lauded the player he is preparing to face.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique cut straight to the point: “The best player in the history of football is beyond doubt.”
A fourth Champions League title would enhance Messi’s credentials to reclaim the Ballon D’Or trophy from Cristiano Ronaldo and become a five-time winner of football’s top individual award. Whether scandal-scarred outgoing Fifa president Sepp Blatter is handing out that trophy one final time in January remains unclear.
As the Fifa crisis rumbles on, here are key themes surrounding this season’s Champions League final:
THE POLITICAL GAME
Behind the scenes in Germany, the intrigue surrounding European football’s showpiece will all be about who replaces Blatter at the helm of Fifa. Blatter succumbed to the intensifying pressure on his presidency by announcing plans to resign on Tuesday – only four days after his re-election.
That sudden move put a halt to Uefa’s plans to hold an emergency meeting in Berlin to discuss whether to boycott Fifa and ultimately the World Cup.
Instead, Berlin could witness the start of unofficial electioneering, with Uefa president Michel Platini the favourite to succeed Blatter when the vote takes place sometime between December and March.
RESTORATION OF JUVE
The last week has exposed how football has been corrupted on a vast scale, but the Champions League finalists have not been without scandal of their own recently.
Juventus are back in the final for the first time since 2003 and the “Calciopoli” match-fixing scandal that emerged three years later.
After being revealed to have influenced refereeing, Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles and relegated from the top flight.
The reputation of the so-called “Old Lady” of Turin has gradually been restored, with the club winning the last four Italian tiles. It now has a shot at lifting the European Cup for the first time since 1996.
BARCA’S LEGAL WOES
Allegations of wrongdoing have come on two fronts recently at the Camp Nou.
The Catalan giants are banned from signing any players this year after being found by Fifa to have broken rules on registering minors as youth players.
The club is also facing a damaging court case. Barca president Josep Bartomeu and predecessor Alexandre “Sandro” Rosell are accused of tax evasion, including over the signing of Brazil striker Neymar in 2013 for around $120 million.
Has Neymar’s contribution to the team been worth the ongoing legal strife? The outcome of legal proceedings could determine that.
On the field, the link-up between Neymar, Messi and 2014 recruit Luis Suarez has been thrilling and restored the attacking swagger that naysayers predicted had gone when the team failed to collect a single trophy last season.
With the league and Spanish Cup titles already secured, a treble could herald a return to the dominant era under Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012.
Barca have scored 28 goals in Europe this season to Juve’s 16, and the terrifying trio up front has combined for 120 goals across all competitions.
“They have the best attack in the world,” Juve midfielder Paul Pogba said.
Trying to stop them will be the 37-year-old Buffon, one of the world’s best goalkeepers who has won every major honour in the game except the top prize in Europe.
Juve will be relying on Carlos Tevez for goals. A Champions League winner with Manchester United in 2008, the Argentine’s career appeared to be in freefall at Manchester City. But Tevez is thriving after two years at Juve and his radar for goal is working again.
When the final whistle blows in the Olympic Stadium, it could signal the end of a few players’ careers with their clubs.
Xavi has won a club-record 24 titles and is leaving Barca after 17 seasons. The 35-year-old midfielder – one of the most accurate passers of all time – is off to Qatari club Al-Sadd.
Andrea Pirlo, the 36-year-old midfielder who is also renowned for the proficiency of his passing range and his free kicks, also appears to be nearing the end of his Juve career.
Pogba, 22, is at the opposite end of his career but the Juve midfielder is among the most coveted players in Europe. An impressive performance in the final could seal a lucrative move, having previously been allowed to leave Manchester United.