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Surviving Paris

BY AHMED YUSSUF / @ahmedyussuf10

Mum was still fast asleep when I woke up, washed my face and put on my uniform. There were still several hours until I was due at school as I turned on my freakishly small television and tuned in to watch Arsenal take on Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. 

I was wary of the occasion having been reminded time and again in the build-up of our failures in Europe. This time though, surely things would change? This time, no matter what, we were going to become the first London club to win the continent’s top honour.

The line-up looked strong and our main man Thierry Henry was at the peak of his powers. He’d conquered the Bernabeu, helped himself to another domestic golden boot and was back on his old stomping ground. Having had a patchwork defence throughout the knockout stages even Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell were back in the starting eleven while semi-final hero Jens Lehmann retained his place between the sticks. Things were looking good.

It didn’t take long for things to change. A mistimed goalkeeping tackle by Jens took down Samuel Eto’o. We all knew it, he was off. No wasting time, no begging the referee. Our German had made his bed and we all had to lie in it. Robert Pires was sacrificed and Manuel ‘fumbles’ Almunia entered the fray. I was scared, what was going to happen?

GOAL! Unbelievably, Sol Campbell scored from a Thierry Henry free-kick following a ‘foul’ on Emmanuel Eboue. The time ticked on, but slowly, so, so slowly. It was like being in class and desperately staring at the bell to ring. I wholeheartedly believed we’d hold on. I needed to believe, losing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to go to school and face a whole heap of abuse from Miss Nermin’s class. No sir, that wasn’t going to happen today!

The tide was turning though, Barcelona came out in the second half with purpose. I kept biting my finger nails all the while wondering when and even if the 90 minutes would ever end. Then we conceded. Almunia beaten at his near post. His near post for god sake, his near post!

The clock was at 76 minutes; Eto’o had scored from an Henrik Larsson assist. Minutes later the Swede set up Juliano Belletti to bag what was the winner. My heart wasn’t just broken, it was crushed, shattered into a million pieces. We’d been 15 minutes from lifting the most coveted trophy in European football and then had history snatched from our grasp.  

We weren’t to become the first London side to lift the trophy. But six/seven years after that traumatic defeat in the Parisian rain, I wonder could we have another go. We weren’t world beaters back then, so who’s to say we can’t make the final again.

My primary school classmates may have tortured me on that faithful day, but it was an experience I survived and a moment as a fan I won’t forget. The euphoria, passion and heartbreak only strengthened my love for this club. We might not have been the champions of Europe, but we were the team with the greater heart and soul on the night. Ten men Arsenal on the cusp of beating one of the best teams in Europe at the time; it would’ve been some headline. I guess it was just not meant to be.

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