Returning to Cardiff 12 years after my first football game felt pretty special, especially with Welsh interest in the Champions League final. Cardiff-born, Gareth Bale, was bidding for his third European Cup with Real Madrid, who were taking on Juventus in the evening.
We didn’t have a ticket for the biggest game in European club football but with such a huge event taking place on our doorstep, the girlfriend and I thought we’d sample the ‘festival of football’ being held in the Welsh capital before the big kick-off.
We got out of Cardiff Central at half nine and were already surrounded by Italians and Spaniards. Immediately, I took us to the stadium, which was just around the corner.
To my surprise, the Champions League trophy was on display nearby (and quite heavily guarded). With all the fans singing in the streets already and the famous trophy gleaming away, it felt like instant gratification.
When we took in the Principality, my first football memories came back.
For me, it will always be the Millenium Stadium – the stage for my first ever football match back in 2005. My uncle took me to see Wales against Austria in a World Cup qualifying match.
I remember walking alongside the River Taff and being in awe of such a massive piece of construction. Living in England, I also recall the immense sense of joy to be with fellow Wales fans. I hadn’t experienced that before – a sense of camaraderie and belonging to a group of people in red and white shirts.
Back then, terrorist threats weren’t as prominent as they are now and it showed with the amount of security around the stadium and city centre. But, despite this, the atmosphere never felt subdued. Everyone was taking photos of the ground, holding up flags and banners, whilst the hoards of fans in the high street grew in numbers and noise throughout the day.
Saffron had mentioned that she wanted to try a ‘Bale Ale’ from the Welshman’s own sports bar, Elevens’, so we headed in there. As you might expect, it was packed full of Madrid fans, who were both singing and drinking enthusiastically even at midday.
All around the room were signed sports memorabilia from the likes of Paolo Maldini, Ronaldo (the Brazilian), Floyd Mayweather Jr, Roger Federer and Bale himself. There was also a Champions League trophy locked away above the bar. I’m not sure whether it was a real replica or not, as I’m pretty sure individual players wouldn’t get a trophy as a prize, while I’m certain Real would donate it, but the Spanish fans were all taking photos of it.
If I had to criticize the place, it’s possibly a bit too small for a sports bar. I can’t imagine more than 50 people in there at one time. Maybe it’s got a better atmosphere because of that, though. And, incidentally, Saff didn’t think the Bale Ale was all that great. But if I were ever in Cardiff with no ticket for the big game, it would definitely be my venue of choice.
From there, we headed to Cardiff Bay for the Champions Football Festival. It was a cool experience to walk through Cardiff City Centre with all the roads closed. The long stretch on Lloyd George Avenue was decorated with all the clubs and star players who had participated in the Champions League this season, in both the men’s and women’s competitions. There was also a host of interactive games upon entry to the festival, with Saff and I enjoying a session of table football.
The festival itself was decent. The layout, setting and decorations were all fantastic and there was also some cool things to see and do, including a gallery of classic Champions League photos and shirts.
Definitely the biggest highlight was the opportunity to have a photo with the Champions League trophy. I assumed this wasn’t a replica like the one in Bale’s pub, as two bouncers were guarding the silverware with keen eyes. Also, when I touched the base of it, one of them gave me a very stern ‘hands off’ warning. But it was worth it to say I’ve felt the ultimate prize in club football.
As much as the festival tried to create atmosphere and excitement with remixes of Queen songs and two ladies giving away free hats on stage, I still felt like the City Centre had the best vibes. Maybe being around the stadium itself created more of a buzz. That’s what I felt anyways. Still, it was very well-organised, had some amazing views from the Bay and there was plenty of activities for all ages to enjoy.
As Cardiff Centre became more and more rammed full of football fans, it was nice to take a break from it all at the National Museum in Cardiff. Plus, I felt like I’d put Saff through enough football madness for one day.
We walked back through the city on the way to the train station and headed home at 5:20, just as the fans were entering the stadium. When we got home, we watched the final. I really wanted Juventus to win as their fans seemed more joyous and in greater number.
When Mario Mandzukic scored a wonder goal to cancel out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener, I certainly celebrated like one. But respect to Ronaldo and Madrid, they came back strong in the second half. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos dominated the midfield to allow Casemiro and Asensio to score either side of Ronaldo’s second.
In that 4-1 win, Madrid became the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era, while late sub, Bale, made it a hat-trick of titles. It felt great to be a part of it, even without a match ticket.