At the end of a long, gruelling season I can’t be alone in hearing voices. Most loudly, in my head, I hear the voices of the uplifting interviews which marked the culmination of this interminable, unique 11-month slog.
I hear Pep Guardiola’s, for example. In the week leading up to Manchester City‘s treble-clinching win in Istanbul I asked him whether, given the horrible reverses he’d suffered as player and coach he’d ever “grown to hate” the Champions League.
I thought of him losing 4-0 in the 1994 final in Athens, as a Barcelona player, to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. The brutal semifinal elimination as Barcelona’s coach to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 — forced to wearily travel to Milan by bus because Icelandic volcano ash had shut down European airspace. All the previous, painful “close-but-no-cigar” moments with Manchester City. He smiled, and rebutted my idea. Firmly.
“No, no, it’s given me more… I look at it from a different angle,” he said. “It’s been 12 or 13 years, I’ve reached 10 Champions League semifinals, I’ve played three finals, winning two, and now I’m going to be in my fourth. It’s given me more than I could have ever expected.
“If my life were to end now, I’d have won one as a player in my club [Barca], which I love so much, as well as winning two as my club’s manager. Football provides and takes away from you. You have to be ambitious but not too greedy.
“This competition has given me very, very sad moments which hurt me, which will always be in my mind, but it also gave me extremely beautiful moments, which will also always be in my mind.”
I liked that conversation. I savoured that answer. His voice is in my head.
I think of the little DIY TV studio we fixed up in a small room in PSV Eindhoven‘s stadium, for the end of the Women’s Champions League final where either Wolfsburg or Barcelona players would be interviewed depending on who triumphed. It happened to be Barcelona. Coming back from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2.
My favourite female player in the world, Aitana Bonmati, was the last of our three interviews — still in playing kit, medal round her neck. A t-shirt bunched up in her hand. Upon winning, she’d donned that t-shirt which read: “Change your mind. WELCOME REFUGEES. Save their lives.” and headed for the TV cameras. I loved that. Some tournament ‘suit’ had ordered her to take it off. I hated that.
I hear her voice, now. Saying a couple of things.
Firstly, when I asked her who the win was “for,” Aitana, who was later voted the Women’s Champions League player of the season, told me: “Today, I had 25-30 people in the stands supporting me — my friends, my family — and it’s not the first time they have travelled to support me.
“I hadn’t celebrated winning a final with them, because the last one we won was in Gothenburg during the pandemic, played behind closed doors. That’s why today has been so special. I also want to thank all our fans.
“They all travelled to Turin last year, and we couldn’t get the win [against Lyon]. I recall apologising to them after the match last year, promising them we would be back. Today, they deserve it more than anybody.
“When the celebrations calm down, and I get to look back on this moment, I’ll realise I’m privileged to play professional football with Barcelona, and to have such fans.”
Beautiful sentiments. Something which adds meaning and veracity to any big occasion, regardless of which team wins.
Then, and I truly hear this right now, Aitana refused to leave our makeshift studio. Her team was getting ready to leave for the airport. In my opinion she had better places to be, but she told us that she wanted to stay and chat. So we did.
One of the best footballers in the world, triumphant, and fully deserving the release of jumping about, drinking Cava, singing and shouting with her teammates, stayed with us for another 20 minutes. Not filming, not recording. Just talking about the battle to educate people about refugees, about her hero-worship for Guardiola, about what football means to her. And how important it was to feel that, soon, matches like that Champions League final would be played in 60-70,000 capacity stadia. It was magical.
Then there’s the voices of these last few days.
A tense, technical, flat-out Nations League final on Sunday between Spain and Croatia — 11 months into the season — played at a pace, with such intensity that it could have been mistaken for a crucial game taking place in November or February when players’ batteries aren’t flat — when they’re supposed to be at their peak. Spain won, somehow.
Then, in another tiny makeshift TV studio at Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium, basically a storage cupboard, pinched from the official trophy engraver who’d just finished his work, I can hear the voices of the two penalty shootout heroes, Dani Carvajal and Unai Simon.
Carvajal admitted he’d only ever taken one competitive penalty before in his entire career: “I wanted to take one tonight. When the game ended, I went to the manager. They were doing a five-player shortlist and I told them that if any of the players were hesitating, or weren’t confident enough, I would like to take one. And, if not, I would take the sixth one.”
The sixth it was and, thanks to his Panenka chip over Dominik Livakovic, he lifted his first trophy with La Roja (following five Champions League wins with Real Madrid). Still in that cupboard he told me: “My wife is pregnant, 36 weeks, and when we were on the phone after the medals were handed out she admitted she almost gave birth because of the stress of the football!”
I think he was joking. But it’s a voice which will live with me for a long time.
Then, the hero of the hour. Unai Simon. He’s a fabulous character: smart, articulate, deep thinker and fun, too. He handed me the Nations League trophy and insisted that I raise it for Scotland. And he admitted that, for all his preparation, it was instinct which had truly won the day.
Simon told me: “No word of a lie, I had studied all six penalty takers, except for Lovro Majer [the first of two Croatia players to miss in the shootout].
“I had to make a decision, looking at how he placed the ball, and that’s why I chose that to dive right. When I figured out he might be about to shoot down the middle it gave me time to lift my feet up. It’s something you don’t think about doing, it just comes to your mind at that moment.
“When you are lucky enough to raise up your left boot, and save the shot, it fills you with happiness. Luck was on our side today.”
Lovely. I don’t want to stop hearing that Basque voice — he’s a special competitor, a special guy.
I can hear a voice in the future, too. I’m not going to go on and on about it right now but it’s worth mentioning. I’m afraid I can hear, first, sources around Lionel Messi‘s entourage briefing that he’s deeply unimpressed with life at Inter Miami. Then voices telling us about his bad temper and impatience when it comes to teammates who have no idea how to get on his wavelength. And who don’t possess a sliver of his talent.
Life in Miami — yes. Messi adding power to the MLS brand instead of going off to Saudi Arabia — great. Messi utterly changing his nature and being relaxed, even tolerant, of a club like Inter Miami which looks like it’s a long way off being well run — no.
How important is the Nations League win for Spain?
Luis Garcia explains how important winning the UEFA Nations League is for Spain after they beat Croatia on penalties.
Which brings me to the voices I’m glad I heard. The ones which we should all have heard, which we should all be talking about. They belong to Guardiola (again), Frenkie de Jong, and Rodri. Voices which matter as much as those who celebrate beauty and glory and heroism. The voices which are warning us. The voices to whom, nobody, at all, in power is bothering to listen to. The voices we must support.
Guardiola started it on the pitch in Istanbul. Interviewed by Cesc Fabregas he said: “Right now I’ve got no energy to even think about next season. What’s about to happen now is that many of these guys who’ve competed in this Champions League final are off to play international football for their countries.”
At this point Guardiola began tapping the side of his head before adding: “Please, FIFA, UEFA, think about what’s happening. It’s absolute madness. It makes no sense.”
De Jong, ahead of the Nations League finals, criticised UEFA. The Barcelona midfielder, who’s played nearly 4,200 minutes this season told De Telegraaf: “Our schedule is just getting fuller. There is even a game for third or fourth place in the Nations League — literally nobody is waiting for this.
“There will be a new format for the Champions League with more games just so that UEFA can earn more money.”
The response? Instead of his voice having impact, he received a maladroit ‘ticking off’ from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.
And it all came to an end with another of those voices — a stark, loud one. But still nobody who matters is listening, will listen. And it makes me angry on the players’ behalf.
It was well into Monday morning when Manchester City’s Rodri came into the press hall at De Kuip stadium after Spain’s Nation League triumph having done what nobody in the history of football has previously achieved — lifting the club treble and then immediately adding a fourth (international) trophy.
He should be the No. 1 voice of the football players’ community right now. I asked him if he knew from where, in recent weeks, he’d drawn the strength to keep on going, keep on winning trophies. The Spaniard’s point of view was: “I honestly don’t know where that comes from. We are at our limits. I just wanted to give it all. Out there tonight there was a mental battle with in my head every 20 minutes. I just told myself to ‘keep going!’
“This is a sweet moment in my career but I can’t sustain this [amount of playing time] every season. I can’t. It’s crazy. We have to adapt. But the planning for my case next year will be different. If I want to play, in good shape, until I’m 34 I cannot play this amount of games every season.”
So, there you have it. Now you can hear the voices too. Those last three matter as much as those who celebrate beauty and glory and heroism. They are not whistleblowers, they are warning voices. But voices to which nobody in power cares to even give head-room, let alone be influenced by. Let’s support them, you and I. It’s them we love, not the suits.