Champions League final pits Barcelona and Juventus in face-off for history
BERLIN -- When the canopy is a soft, blue sky, few European cities project a sense of openness and possibility as the German capital, which in many ways is unlike many of its Old World brethren.
By European standards, Berlin is not quite a baby but a twenty-something, founded less than 800 years ago. And not just any twenty-something, but one that has had plenty of work done, much of it recently. In terms of urban planning, it underwent two major reboots, one in the wake of World War II after significant parts of the center were destroyed and another in the past quarter-century following German reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The result is a metropolis marked by low-rise buildings, 20th-century architecture in a fascinating hodgepodge of styles, massive parks, wide avenues and a feeling of space. Socioeconomic forces have done the rest, turning it into a booming, cosmopolitan magnet for folks from around the world.
In a way, it's a fitting backdrop for this Champions League final between two clubs with proud -- and in many ways divergent -- histories that have embraced the globalized game. Among the factors that most define modern football is the ability to adapt and absorb change. Just as the city that hosts their showdown Saturday has learned to do.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL (SATURDAY, 2:45 ET / 7:45 BST)
- Marcotti: Historic matchup | Pogba's big test
- Cox: Stopping Barca's front three | Key battles
- Hunter: Messi, Xavi and Iniesta chase history
- Jones: Pirlo keeps going | By The Numbers
- Lowe: Alves' Barca swansong | Final stats
- Horncastle: Juve's long road | Tale of the tape
- Smith: Argentine stars seek redemption
- Delaney: Messi is the difference-maker
- FC TV: Pogba key | Barca favoured | Burley
- Predictions: Who will win? | Vital Statistics
Both Barcelona and Juventus went into the season with new managers at the helm, each surrounded by his own specific set of questions. Luis Enrique arrived at the Camp Nou as a guy with two seasons of top-flight experience and no top-six finishes to his name. His European résumé as a manager amounted to two Europa League qualifiers in 2011. This was a man who walked out on his first major job, at Roma, to go running ultra-marathons in Africa. Football may be more open-minded than it once was, but that was a step too far for many.
Max Allegri was parachuted into Juventus in the middle of summer after Antonio Conte's shock resignation. His appointment wasn't the result of a long, careful job search, but a function of the fact that somebody needed to run the club and Allegri was jobless and available. This may explain why he tiptoed into the club, effecting change in tiny increments, but nevertheless bringing major change over time, and not just in the move to a back four.
Both clubs are global mega-brands, but they differ in their marketing approach. Barcelona push the "more than a club" philosophy, the Catalan culture, La Masia, the adapted version of legendary former player and manager Johan Cruyff's now idealized vision. All of this has strong, specific geographic roots.
Juventus are polar opposites, as summed up by their former commercial director, Romy Gai.
"I don't think it was part of the plan when the club was founded, but we are probably the biggest club in the world without any reference to geographic place ... we have fans who don't even know we're from Turin," he told me a few years ago. "As a marketing tool, it's immense. We are global and have been from the start, which is why our fan base is so diverse."
Put a different way, being a "Cule" requires at least some embrace of Barcelona as a physical place. Being "Juventino" a lot less so; it's an idea, and a transnational one at that.
In some ways, both also represent the notion that the club -- the entity -- is stronger than the man leading it. Luis Enrique is Barcelona's fourth manager in just over three years and he may not be in charge in just a few months' time; a function of the club's peculiar politics and, perhaps, his own, often uncompromising, personality. Allegri's success proved that Juve did not collapse when Conte walked out: on the contrary, he built on his work. Both Luis Enrique and Allegri have been magnificent this season, but both are, for lack of a better word, expendable.
On the pitch, we'll see the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, the man whose perpetual rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo has led to a paradigm shift. Twenty goals in a season used to be a great campaign; 30, a career year. Messi got to 30 in mid-January. And no, this isn't like when baseball transitioned out of the dead ball era in the 1920s. It's not that everyone is scoring more, it's just those two guys.
We'll also see his heirs apparent. His teammate Neymar, lining up on the opposite wing, a photonegative of the little Argentine, biding his time and growing every season: scoring 38 goals, all but one from open play. When you're playing second fiddle to Messi, that's no mean feat.
Across the pitch, we'll see Paul Pogba, cut from an entirely different cloth -- a man, like the other two, hyped from an early age who has lived up to the buzz at every turn. His skill set is entirely different, as are his tasks on the pitch, but his future is no less bright than Neymar's.
Then there are the old masters, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi. Precocious playmakers who first did battle nearly two decades ago and who have built careers around their ability to bend time and space to their will, thanks to the precision in their boots and the geometry in their minds.
Or the two South American strikers, guys whose stars burned ever so bright but have embraced the hard-running ethic of the intense, blue-collar hero. Carlos Tevez was Messi before Messi in Argentina, only to transform himself into a rabid perpetual-motion machine, relentlessly working the opposition dike until he finds the pinprick hole. Luis Suarez carried Liverpool to second place in the Premier League last season, drawing comparisons to the Anfield deities of yesteryear, but traded the spotlight for a supporting -- but no less important -- role at Barcelona. The hunger and maniacal intensity is unchanged, it's just that while he once macheted his own path to the goal, now, more often than not, he clears the way for others.
There are parallels and storylines running throughout the side. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was 5 years old when Gigi Buffon made his international debut. He was 14 when he saw Buffon lift the World Cup in Berlin's Olympiastadion. Both keepers are uncommonly athletic, but where Buffon channels his athleticism into textbook goalkeeping, Ter Stegen interprets the position differently: sometimes unorthodox, always proactive, he's Barcelona's last defender and first attacker, following the trail set by Victor Valdes.
Or how about the veteran full-backs, Dani Alves and Patrice Evra? By Saturday night, they will have played eight Champions League finals between them. Evra left Manchester United, the club that marked his career, last summer and reinvented himself at Juve. Alves, who is out of contract and has yet to renew, is facing a similar decision.
At the back, you'll find Leonardo Bonucci, one of the last truly ball-playing centre-backs around, a throwback to a time when central defenders first and foremost built their teams' attacking play. Across the way: Javier Mascherano, all 5-foot-8 1/2 inches of him, the recycled holding midfielder who proves time and again that -- at least if you play for Barcelona -- centre-back is more about timing, positioning and reading the game than it is about height.
If there are other players who did not rate a mention in this piece -- Claudio Marchisio and Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Andres Iniesta, Alvaro Morata and Gerard Pique, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Jordi Alba -- it's not a slight. Their journeys to Berlin and their contributions to the cause merit entire columns on their own. Each will be key to Saturday's proceedings in his own way.
Barcelona are favorites and, if they win, you'll hear folks wonder whether theirs is the greatest front trio ever assembled. Should the game go Juventus' way, the narrative may turn to one of redemption and reconstructing, rising out of the ashes of the Calciopoli scandal.
That's one way to look at it. But Saturday is about more than that. It's about two clubs standing on the verge of a treble, and their achievements this season ought not to be defined by 90 minutes in a final.
Football is not about the final mile. It's about the work you put in to get there. What you do to give yourself the possibility of victory. Having come so far, that last stretch is as much in your hands as it is at the mercy of luck, individual feats (whether of genius or crass errors) and probability.
It's appropriate that this continually rebuilding city of possibilities, where the past is acknowledged but not revered (fortunately), should host these two clubs who have learned, more than most, to accept and embrace change and the wide-open canvas of opportunity.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.