Berlin on the Eve of the Champions League Final

On the eve of the Champions League, fans of Barcelona and Juventus gather at the Brandenburg Gate and dream of victory.

Jun 5 2015, 4:45pm

Photo by Tom Sekula

The area around the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's most famous landmark, is barricaded—and not for the first time. During the Cold War, a checkpoint just to the east of the Gate was part of a wall dividing the city in two: East and West. John F. Kennedy gave perhaps his most famous speech just to the West, telling the world, "Ich bin ein Berliner," and defying the Soviet Union with a pledge of support for West Berliners, whose spot here, deep in East Germany, was like a small hole in the Iron Curtain.

Today, on the eve of the Champions League final, the barricade is placed almost precisely where the border wall once stood, but it's not made of stone and concrete. Rather, it's a temporary, pedestrian fence. The fencing isn't a political barrier. It's not separating Barca and Juventus fans either. It marks the edge of the Champions League fan zone, where tomorrow, thousands of ticketless fans will watch the match on a big screen, much like thousands of West Berliners once watched Kennedy.

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It's surreal, how time can change a place.

Fans are here now to take in the sight of the Gate, play a little five-a-side at a nearby temporary field, and perhaps buy a replica jersey at the Official Champions League Fan Shop, which is just beyond the barricade entrances. On both sides of the fan shop—a temporary, scaffolded building covered with decals of Berlin's Olympic Stadium and the Champions League trophy against a UEFA-blue background—there are a number of blown up photographs commemorating the Champions League wins that brought each team to this final. At the American Embassy, which is adjacent to the Gate, armed guards look on, at once bemused and steely-eyed.

The Gate, always a huge tourist draw, has been turned into a soccer holy site. We're still more than 24 hours from kickoff, but the excitement is palpable. Fans wear striped shirts—both black and white and white and orange—and mill around the monument, snapping photos. Selfie sticks abound. Barcelona fans outnumber Juventus fans by at least 10-1, but the Juve fans seem more international.

Nahir Almugbel. Photo by Tom Sekula

Nahir Almugbel, a man in his twenties with big sunglasses and a form-fitting Juventus jersey, stands in front of a picture showing Juventus players hugging on the field, celebrating their semi-final win over Real Madrid. Almugbel is from Saudi Arabia, and when I ask him if he has tickets, he says "of course," in English, as though a ticket wasn't the most coveted thing in town right now, being scalped for hundreds or even thousands of Euros. Almugbel tells me he's been a Juve fan since he started watching football as a youth. He particularly liked some Italian international players who also happened to play for Juve. He's visited Turin four times to watch Juve live. The final will be his fifth live Juve match.

"It's a difficult game," he says, when I ask for a prediction. "Barcelona has one of the best players—or three of the best attackers in the world. But I believe in Juventus and I hope and I wish for us to win, to beat them, and get the cup." When I press him for a score, he eventually calls it 2-1, for Juve.

It might seem strange to find a die-hard fan from Saudi Arabia at a Champions League final, but it's anything but. In fact, Almugbel is one of many fans here who are neither Spanish, Italian or German. These fans are the new normal in club competition. (In addition to Almugbel, I speak to a man named Khoa who flew all the way to Turin and then here—from Vietnam.) In today's soccer world, European mega clubs are locked in a fierce, off-field competition to attract international fans and international money. The anecdotal evidence here suggests Juventus is doing a better job than Barca.

Another Juventus fan I speak to, a quietly optimistic man named Mike who looks about 30 ("I haven't been saying it too loudly, but I actually think we'll win. 2-1 or 1-0, but I actually think we'll win") is in town from Adelaide, Australia. His connection to the club is less tenuous than Almugbel's or Khoa's: Mike's parents are Italian; he inherited his allegiance. His folks aren't from Turin though. "They're from the south," he says. "What you find is that there's actually a lot of Italians from the south that support Juventus, which geographically doesn't make sense but for other reasons makes a lot of sense. A lot of southerners migrated to the north and worked up there, and worked for Fiat as well, and Fiat has been a major backer of Juventus for more than 80 years. So that grew a strong following in the south, mainly because of that but also being successful as well."

Luigi Toma and Gionatan Cavalieri. Photo by Tom Sekula

As if to prove his point, the next two Juventus supporters I speak to—Luigi Toma and Gionatan Cavalieri—neither of whom have tickets, are originally from Lecce, a town right in the heel of the boot. Toma is less optimistic than Mike. "I think tomorrow it's more difficult, he says. "I think it's 120 minutes."

"And then a penalty shoot out," chimes in Cavalieri.

"And then Buffon!" I say. They both laugh and nod in agreement. Juventus' legendary keeper Gianluigi Buffon will have to have the game of his life if Juve has any chance to silence Lionel Messi and his two sidekicks, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

Barcelona fans, as you might expect, are far more confident than their Juventus counterparts. In the team's last match, the Copa del Rey final, Messi, perhaps the best player to ever kick a ball, scored one of his best-ever goals, beating 4 players off the dribble before placing the ball just inside the opposing keeper's near post. He's in top form. I can't find a Barca fan who thinks the team will score fewer than three goals.

I do, however, find plenty who will view the match tomorrow with a twinge of sadness, regardless of the final score. It's the last time club legend Xavi Hernandez will suit up as a Barcelona player. He's the club's most decorated player. He's irreplaceable, but age is inescapable.

"She'll cry," a man named Marc Ferré says in Spanish, pointing at his partner Marisa Sancho. Ferré and Sancho are from small towns about halfway between Barcelona and Valencia, but they're diehard Barca fans, and have visited the stadium about 150 times between them.

Marc Ferré and Marisa Sancho. Photo by Tom Sekula

Arnau Castan Bonastre, a student in Barcelona, will also see Xavi's last match with a bitter sweetness. "Actually, I come from the same town as Xavi," he says. "We appreciate him very much. We almost love him. It has been quite sad, the last game in Barcelona stadium. It was his last game there. And of course this one it will be very special. I hope that he will play and even score, that would be great."

I ask him for his prediction. "3-2," he says.

"With Xavi scoring the winner?"

He smiles for a moment. Laughs. "Yeah."

Arnau Castan Bonastre. Photo by Tom Sekula

The last man I speak with is Miguel Ferrer, a 62 year old who's had Barcelona season tickets for 40 years. He's seen it all. Been to other European finals, seen Barca at it's best and worst. But here in Berlin, Ferrer is one of the legion of ticketless fans who traveled to support their team anyway. "Before, it was a lot easier to go to the finals, because it was easier to get a ticket and get in," he says in Spanish, telling me about the old days. "Now it's a matter of luck. It's difficult. There are so many socios who want to go in and only 20,000 tickets for the clubs but 140 thousands socios. This year 90,000 socios applied to go in."

I ask him if he'll miss Xavi.

"It happens to everybody," he tells me with the perspective only age and experience can bring. "It's logical [for time to pass]. It happens one day. It happens to Xavi. One day it will happen to Messi. Others will finish. Others will come."

I nod in agreement.

"What matters," says Ferrer, "is the club."