The former is where Celtic will be hosted by Real Betis to begin their Europa League group campaign on Thursday, while the latter stands as the scene for the conclusion of their most celebrated continental campaign of modern times. The proximity of the arenas has been deemed close enough for the club’s support to immerse themselves fully in reveries over the baking Seville night of May 21, 2003 at the Estadio Olimpico – an occasion when their team piloted by Martin O’Neill narrowly failed to land the UEFA Cup following an absorbing, see-saw final against Porto that resulted in a 3-2 extra-time success for Jose Mourinho’s coming men from Portugal.
To the Celtic fanbase, and particularly the 80,000 that travelled to the city to become – at that time – the largest such migratory force for a single football game, the occasion has taken on joyous, mythical proportions. Wrapped up in that is the sense of pilgrimage, pageantry and pride, not least because of the FIFA Fair Play Award later awarded to the Celtic fans for their behaviour. It is a different story for those that took to the pitch in the quest to claim a second European trophy for the club a full 36 years on from the European Cup triumph in Lisbon.
The overriding emotion for the players involved in Seville is pain – as Paul Lambert makes no attempt to disguise. The former club midfielder can’t see past the agony over coming up short in the decider. A fate that befell Celtic despite Henrik Larsson’s majestic headed double that allowed them twice to draw level, before a 96th-minute red card for Bobo Balde gave way to Derlei sealing the victory with his second five minute before a penalty shoot-out would have been required.
“Does seeing the team go back there this week bring back memories for me? Yeah, bad ones!” said the club’s former midfielder, who was withdrawn 76 minutes in and would start only 18 more games across the closing two years of the glittering O’Neill era. “That’s the biggest regret the players from our era had – that we never won it there. We were so close to doing it.”
The Estadio Olimpico had only opened four years before Celtic’s visit. Yet it seemed oddly tumbledown, the bowl design hardly giving the impression of modernity. A 52,972 attendance was given for the 60,000-capacity ampitheatre. Another pity for Lambert, and not his only issue with the ground. “I still say that stadium wasn’t big enough to hold the crowd we took,” he said. “I don’t think the pitch was good enough for a European final either.”
Celtic at least proved they belonged in that domain. There was no shame in losing to a more technically adept Porto side given the ultimate upward trajectory Mourinho then had them on. “We ran them so close, a really good Porto team who went on to win the Champions League a year later. I think it all hinged on a bit of luck, really,” Lambert said. “But probably if you ask any of us from that squad, that game and not winning it will be the biggest regret for us.”