The long journey to the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev began back on June 27, when teams from Andorra, Malta and San Marino were among those to set out with big hopes but little expectation. Six weeks later, however, it is a marquee match in Macedonia that represents the real curtain raiser for the European season.
The meeting of heavyweights Real Madrid and Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup provides a tantalising amuse bouche for the continental campaign ahead, with both Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane looking for their players to lay down an early marker in their quest for European glory.
That these two great clubs have only met just 10 times competitively in 60 years makes this an even greater treat; the mystique of the rivalry has not been diluted by the Champions League era, in which epic tussles between famous clubs have become de rigeur.
Here are three key talking points ahead of the 2017 UEFA Super Cup.
MOURINHO’S MADRID GHOSTS
Jose Mourinho is adored at Porto, cherished at Chelsea and idolised at Inter Milan. He left a lasting legacy at all three clubs, but at Real Madrid he failed to win the same sort of affection. The UEFA Super Cup pre-match press conference brought a first real showdown with the Madrid media since his acrimonious departure from the Bernabeu in 2013 and Mourinho was quickly quizzed on why Los Blancos have gone on to bigger and better things without him.
“I left and it was difficult for people to say good things about me,” Mourinho responded bullishly. “I’ve never said too much, I’ve never cried… You were always coming at me but quite frankly I left at peace. I’ve never been very concerned about this. At Real Madrid I gave more than I had ever given before to a club.”
Despite his claim to the contrary, it still appears an irksome issue for Mourinho, who feels he laid the groundwork for Madrid’s recent success. The Portuguese was keen to stress that he reached three successive Champions League semi-finals after a period in which the club had failed to get past the last-16 for six straight seasons. That – coupled with Copa del Rey, La Liga and Spanish Supercopa titles – appears a commendable achievement given he was facing one of the greatest club sides ever in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
But delivering commendable when fans expect incredible just wasn’t good enough according to Filippo Ricci, who witnessed the Mourinho era first hand as Real Madrid correspondent for La Gazzetta Della Sport.
“Mourinho divided everything,” Ricci, explains to FourFourTwo Arabia. “The chairman was in love and some of the fans were in love because he was always on the attack. He tired people out – Pep Guardiola so much that he quit! His time at the club will never be forgotten for everything that happened but from the results perspective he failed. How can you dare say that three semis is an achievement when you are talking about Real Madrid – he is glorifying himself! He should have won it – that’s why he was hired.”
“Mourinho still feels it, you can tell. He used the word tranquillad (calm) three times in his press conference but I can assure you nothing was tranquillad about his departure from Real Madrid. It was a mess. He had personal fights with his players for the first time – at Inter, Chelsea and Porto he was loved by the players. He had problems with the media, with some of the fans, with referees, with Barcelona, with UEFA. He stepped over the line. His legacy was one of destruction, and on those ruins others have built success.”
Mourinho’s failure to deliver Champions League may see him forgo a place in the Real Madrid pantheon but he is now focused on forging a new dynasty at Old Trafford. Two major trophies in his first season is more than he managed with Los Blancos and a first Super Cup triumph – he has previously fallen short with Porto and Chelsea – may just help lay Mourinho’s Madrid demons to rest.
Another summer, another Gareth Bale transfer saga. Rarely a window goes by without Bale being linked with a move away from the Bernabeu and Manchester United have time and again been identified as leading suitors. Bale surpassed United legend Ryan Giggs as the Champions League’s most decorated Welshman with his third triumph in four years in May and it’s easy to see how his pace could lift the Red Devils’ attack. Mourinho was certainly happy to stoke the fires on Tuesday, claiming he’d be first in line to welcome Bale should Madrid decide to sell.
“Well if he’s playing tomorrow, it would be because he’s in the coach’s plans and the club’s plans, because he also has that motivation to continue at Real Madrid,” Mourinho said. “If he is not in the club’s plans, that with the arrival of another player would mean he was on his way out, I will try to be waiting for him on the other side and fight with other coaches that would want him on their team.”
It is difficult to shake the image of Mourinho waiting at airport arrivals with an oversized ‘Gareth’ sign, jostling with Antonio Conte for position; The Bale Out certainly seems a pretty good name for a footballing rom com.
Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was almost immediately given the opportunity to rebuff the rumours but didn’t do the best job of dampening speculation, saying: “At the moment Gareth is a player of Real Madrid – we are delighted to have him on board. The future of any player is decided by that player. The month of August is very long, anything can happen but obviously we know that Gareth is on our team at the moment.”
Bale’s first match after joining Madrid for a then-world record fee in 2013 was an unused substitute in Wales’ 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat away to Macedonia. Four years later, Skopje could potentially be the final destination on his Real Madrid journey.
While cities like Manchester and Madrid are accustomed to regularly hosting world class football, the Super Cup presents Skopje with a unique opportunity. Although several of Tuesday night’s all-star Super Cup cast have played at the Philip II Arena before – David De Gea, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Henrikh Mkhitaryan among those to contest international fixtures – there has certainly never been a match of this magnitude.
There are plenty of sticks with which to beat the bureaucratic behemoth of UEFA but the decision to take the Super Cup to less heralded destinations is certainly proving one of the organisation’s better ideas. Skopje joins Prague, Cardiff, Tbilisi and Trondheim in getting a glimpse into football’s fast lane, with the event generating much excitement in the city.
Supporters have been streaming through the cobbled streets of central Skopje, the scorching summer heat doing little to discourage visits to the fan zone, located in the shadow of the colossal 29-metre tall bronze statue of ancient warrior king, Philip of Macedon. The Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup trophies on display have attracted selfies aplenty, while fans of all ages lined the roads surrounding the stadium on Tuesday in a bid to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. following Real Madrid’s evening training session.
Football fervour is in the air but it remains to be seen whether there will be any tangible legacy for Skopje, whose magnificent Philip II Arena housed a meagre 300 supporters for the city’s most recent derby between FK Rabotnicki and FK Vardar in May. Zoran Mishevski, editor of Macedonian football website gol.mk, is hopeful that the Super Cup will have a galvanising effect.
“It’s a great thing for our country, the biggest sporting event in our history,” Mishevski tells FourFourTwo Arabia. “We have organised some big handball and basketball tournaments’ and we have seen matches against big countries like Spain, Italy and England – but welcoming two huge clubs with such big stars, it is something fantastic.
“All of last season we were eagerly waiting for who would be playing – I think many pessimistic Macedonian fans thought it might be something a little less exciting, like Monaco vs Celta Vigo. But we have Manchester United vs Real Madrid – both of these clubs have a lot of fans here in Macedonia. It has been great to see so many football fans in Skopje, singing in the bars and restaurants.
“It is a big event for tourism, it is great publicity for the city of Skopje. There will be fans from Serbia and the rest of the Balkans too – it’s great to see such a big game in this part of Europe. I think it can be a stepping stone for Skopje to organise bigger events in the future and also for other Macedonian cities to build better stadiums and infrastructure.
“The quality of Macedonian fotball is not that high so it is not that popular; people would prefer to watch big matches from other European leagues rather than support the teams. But this years there has been great progress. We heave two teams in the Europa League playoff round – Shkëndija and Vardar – for the first time in our history. Our Under-21 team qualified for this year’s Under-21 championship in Poland – this is big step. With the Super Cup, too, it is for sure the best year in the history of Macedonian football.”