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Old 21st September 2017, 15:01   #1
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Default Cologne fans' passion reminded superclubs of days when European football meant so muc

Cologne fans' passion reminded superclubs like Arsenal of days when European football meant so much

Sam Wallace Chief Football Writer
16 September 2017 • 7:00pm

Along the Holloway Road in the early hours of Friday morning, the coaches with registration plates from Germany were drawing up by the side of the road every few minutes and collecting travellers casting a bleary last eye over the part of north London that had been home for 24 hours.

The Cologne fans were boarding their transport, leaving behind them a lot of empty cans and a Euro-powered spike in the takings of the off licenses and takeaway joints in this part of Islington.

Waking up on the Autobahn near Maastricht with a hangover and one lavatory between 40 does not sound like most people’s idea of a great European mini-break but by now we know how much this game meant to the fans of the Bundesliga team.

Now that all sides have had a go at apportioning the blame for Thursday’s nights events – the ticket touts, the German fans, the English security operation – what does it say about Uefa’s two elite club competitions that we should spend three days discussing the enthusiasm of one set of supporters?

It was as hard to believe how excited Cologne were about playing in London as it was difficult to imagine subjecting one’s self to the ordeal of a 14-hour, 740-mile round trip on a coach to watch David Ospina play. But subject themselves they did.

Twenty-five years ago was Cologne’s previous European tie, a Uefa Cup elimination at the hands of Celtic in September 1992, a match played in another era for the game. That was the first season of the new Champions League format when the Uefa Cup was five two-leg knockout rounds and then a two-leg final. The 2017-2018 Europa League winners will only play three more games but it is regarded as that much more of a slog.

There is more European football now than ever before, more guaranteed games because of the group stages, more games between the biggest names and yet the growing indifference to it was never better illustrated than the reaction to the attitude of the Cologne fans.

There are four-year-olds who treat the inflation of the birthday party bouncy castle with less excitement than the thousands of middle-aged German men and women from western Germany approached a trip to the Emirates.

At Arsenal, the waning of the love affair with European football has been as notable as any other. The horror of the round of 16 Champions League draw became a tradition in recent seasons with the inevitable pairing with Bayern Munich or Barcelona a cause for recriminations and sad introspection rather than keen anticipation. But Arsenal are not the only ones – the repetitive nature of the competition throws up the same super-club collisions year after year until they cease to be the occasions they once were.

In their last 13 seasons in the Champions League, Barcelona have played Premier League clubs in all but one and some years more than one English opponent with 15 pairings overall. Back in 1992, when Cologne were playing their previous European season Barcelona had played English opponents just 12 times in more than 40 years. No-one would wish to be complacent about the prospect of watching Lionel Messi in his glorious prime yet the whole Uefa machine of the last two decades has been about giving us more of the so-called big games over and over again. European football’s past was in part about its occasional, precious pairing of two great clubs on a night that everyone would remember.

When Manchester United won the 1991 European Cup-winners’ Cup, the second trophy of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, they beat Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in a mesmeric final in Rotterdam. Their route there encompassed Pecs of Hungary, Wrexham, Montpellier and Legia Warsaw which these days sounds like the kind of pre-season itinerary that Burnley would reject as a bit too low-profile. It did nothing to diminish the final, in fact it stands out among all United’s games against Barcelona including the 2008 Champions League semi-final.

The European away games now are still well-attended by the big Champions League regulars although when one encounters fans in airport check-in queues and stadium concourses there is a mood of the grim pilgrimage, taken more out of obligation than joy. There is little of the wide-eyed wonder of the Cologne fans coming simply for the privilege of sitting outside the Emirates - and perhaps if their last 25 years had been full of modern Uefa competitions, they would feel the same weariness.

The road to Europe is so arduous that many have abandoned it midway. At Stoke City, Tony Pulis sent out the second string against Valencia in 2012. Gary Megson recalled that he was told by the late Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside in 2007 to get out of the Uefa Cup at his earliest convenience, only for a Trotters B-team featuring, among others, the lesser-spotted Gerald Cid, to manage an improbable draw away at Bayern Munich. Harry Redknapp bailed out the Europa League in 2009 against Shakhtar Donetsk with Tottenham’s League Cup final days away.

There has been a similar tone of indifference in the way that Arsene Wenger has talked about the Europa League - as if the Champions League for Arsenal in recent years had been a non-stop carnival of joy which they would wish to re-join as quickly as possible. Then along came Cologne who, on the whole, seem to have reminded many Arsenal fans of the sheer unaffected enjoyment that watching one’s club on new territory can provide. It was not just how long Cologne had been away that prompted their excitement, but all they had been spared in between.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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